In A Tight Spot -- And Loving It

Ever wish your car could just squeeze itself into a tight parking spot? In Japan, it can. Toyota Motor Corp. (TM ) offers a self-parking feature on its Prius sedan sold there. And engineers at Toyota's technical center in Ann Arbor, Mich., recently demonstrated an English-language version.

Here's how it works: First, shift the car into reverse. Automatically, a dashboard-mounted screen shows a clear view of your parking space -- thanks to a camera mounted on the vehicle's rear hatch. Touch either a "parallel" or "back in" button and an icon will appear above a series of eight directional keys and two rotational buttons overlaid on the video screen. Using those keys, line up the icon straight against the bumper of the nearest car. Once that's done, push the "set" button, and voilà! The car nudges itself into the space, as you keep a foot on the brake and your hands off the steering wheel. A bright red grid on the video monitor shows how far to go before applying the brakes.

But don't get too excited. Just backing in to a spot takes about two minutes -- considerably longer than a confident driver might take to do the job alone. And if the spot is too narrow, the system isn't programmed to sound a warning or stop itself from scratching the BMW and Mercedes-Benz parked on either side of you.

Those are two good reasons Toyota so far hasn't tried selling the system, part of a $2,000 package of options, to American drivers. Most important, it worries about the lawsuits that might result from an accident. But with technicians working on a next-generation system that they say will eliminate much of the fuss, Toyota's innovation may yet become a hit for those with a fear of parallel parking.

By Chester Dawson in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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