All-Seeing Eyes: Advanced Camera Systems
Once toys exclusive to luxury models, backup cameras have now trickled down to nearly every new car. Not only do they help distracted drivers avoid running over bicycles and trash cans, but cameras can also save lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that each year nearly 300 people are killed in what it terms "backover accidents." In fact, the federal government may soon mandate that all new vehicles come with either parking sensors or a rear-view camera as standard.
While the majority of these camera systems provide the driver a view of obstacles directly behind the vehicle, some advanced versions permit a wider range of vantage points.
Infiniti EX, FX, QX
Infiniti's Around View Monitor debuted in late 2007 on the 2008 Infiniti EX35 and later became available on the FX crossover and QX SUV. The innovative system uses four cameras, one mounted on each side of the vehicle, to render a top-down, 360-degree view of the car's surroundings. It engages automatically when the driver shifts into reverse and can be selected manually at low speeds. The system provides an easy way to locate wheel-bending curbs or other vehicles when parking in tight locations. The feature is optional on the EX and FX but thankfully is standard on the gigantic QX56.
BMW 5 Series, 7 Series, 650i Convertible, X5, X6
In addition to a standard backup camera, most new BMW models are available with two special side-view cameras. The two small cameras located at the ends of the car's front bumper let the driver "peek" around corners or walls. The system is meant to give the driver an advanced view out of narrow alleyways or obstructed streets, so he or she can check whether there's any oncoming traffic before pulling out. It can also help spot pedestrians approaching a garage exit. The cameras won't necessarily help you get into a parking space, but they can help anyone leaving a tight spot or blind garage exit.
BMW 5 Series, X3, X5, X6, 650i Convertible
Nearly every BMW model also offers a Top-View Camera system. Similar to the Around View Monitor offered by Infiniti, the BMW system uses three cameras (the backup camera and two at each side of the vehicle) to permit a view around the rear three sides of the vehicle. The images appear on the car's iDrive display in the dashboard. Unlike Infiniti's system, it doesn't provide a 360-degree view around the car, but it is still useful for avoiding pesky obstacles when reversing or parallel parking.
Don't Do it Yourself: Cars That Park Themselves
If you're still having trouble fitting your vehicle between others without scratching or denting body parts, perhaps you need an automatic parking system. These systems use cameras and sensors to figure out the locations of other vehicles and obstacles, then automatically spin the steering wheel to guide the vehicle into an open spot. The driver typically has to modulate the vehicle's speed by keeping his or her foot on the brake pedal during the procedure. And, of course, the driver is ultimately responsible for halting the car if it's about to smack a shopping cart or another car.
Lexus LS, Toyota Prius
The first car with such technology in the States was the 2007 Lexus LS. It arrived here in 2006 with Advance Parking Guidance System, which can guide the big luxury sedan into parallel-parking spaces or will reverse the car into normal spaces -- in fact, it's the only such system that can also reverse into spaces in addition to parallel parking. Users must first carefully define the open space with the Lexus's touch-screen interface, but when three Automobile Magazine editors tested the system on video, the results were less than impressive.
When Lexus began hyping the self-parking tech, Audi responded with a commercial featuring an A4 sliding into a tight parking space and the tag line, "The luxury car for people who can park themselves." (Fast-forward to today, and Audi sells several models with self-parking technology -- but only in European markets.) The Lexus system is available as part of pricey option packages on the LS460L and LS460L AWD, while it is standard on the LS600hL hybrid. A good thing, too, as those long-wheelbase models measure a massive 203.9 inches long. The same system is also offered as part of the Advanced Technology Package for the Toyota Prius.