One thing that frequently freaks student drivers is parallel parking. Well, not just students: some drivers never get over it and do anything to avoid tricky backing-up.
Now, technology has come to the rescue of anyone who breaks into a sweat when the car goes into reverse.
Parking sensors and reversing cameras are rapidly becoming mainstream and there's a breed of cars becoming more widely available in New Zealand that even back into a parallel parking space for you.
For some, these advances are all their Christmas wishes come true; for others it's all pretty sissy. Real drivers don't need parking aids - or do they?
It's more than just fancy wheel work while going backwards. When the Australian National Roads and Motorists' Association studied blind spots behind 270 models, less than 1 per cent received a top rating for the driver being able to spot a two-year-old behind the vehicle.
It found that many popular cars have big blind spots, especially those with high-tail styling and small rear windows. In extreme cases, a child could not be seen 15m back from the car.
So there's a strong safety argument for the new-age aids.
But beyond that, why does driving have to be harder than need be? Just as today's automatics have made good driving easier, why shouldn't electronic aids be there to provide additional useful information when backing?
Aids that go 'beep'
The simplest form of reversing and parking aids comprises sensors that start a beeper going when a solid object gets close, and progresses to a constant whine as it comes into paint-kissin' proximity.
These "radar" sensors may be mounted on the rear bumper or both front and rear bumpers.
It's best to have them at both ends; a full set can be a real bonus when parallel parking in tight spaces or, say, getting as close as possible to a wall in a parking building.
"Park-by-radar" technology is well developed and cost-effective. A small disadvantage is that it may continue to beep if you've parked close to an object while, say, letting a passenger in or out. That's why most have a deactivating switch.
Parking sensors have become a popular aftermarket item, with simple ones from around $100, so nobody has to go without. Correct fitting is important; it's not something to do in the driveway before lunch unless you really know what you're doing.
Aids you can watch
A beeping aid may not pick up little Johnny's bike lying flat on the driveway in a blind spot. Or even little Johnny. These are reasons why reversing cameras were developed.
A small wide-angle lens, usually mounted near the number plate and protected from the
weather, relays a picture of what's behind the vehicle to a display on the dashboard.
It's good as an aid to see into those otherwise blind spots, but not a substitute for
using rear-view mirrors while reversing.
Many reversing cameras fail as an ''electronic mirror'' because the screen is too
small, the picture of poor quality, or the angle of view disorienting.
Some units cannot cope with harsh lighting part of the image will be washed-out and the rest a dark blob.
And in bright daylight the screen can be hard to see, even when recessed into the
The better systems do have a large well-placed recessed screen, showing a high-quality picture usually with a clever series of superimposed electronic ''lines'', including the
angle of the front wheels, to help guide the driver.
Some cars add a front camera or, more recently, even provide a ''panoramic'' view all
around the car.
Aftermarket camera kits are available and some are quite good.
Dealers often offer them as an option. They cost in the $200-$500 range.
Let it do the parking
The ultimate electronic aid parallel parks for you, using sensors and considerable computing power. You'd expect automatic parking would be on expensive cars only, but
the technology is migrating into the affordable zone, on such vehicles as the Ford Focus and Kia Sorento R SUV.
A typical setup uses ultrasonic parking sensors in the front and rear bumpers that work
in conjunction with the steering.
At low speeds, the system begins scanning possible parking locations on each side of the car.
It begins parking when the driver selects reverse and activates the indicator light for the side of the road with the parking space.
The driver is basically just along for the ride, but can over-ride the electronics at any time.
Here's a heads-up
Electronics are helping drivers looking forward, not just back. Head-up displays
(HUD) moved from jet fighter cockpits into cars in the 1980s, and have developed
from showing little more than vehicle speed to providing comprehensive information,
including navigation directions.
The information is projected onto a special section of windscreen within the driver's field of view, so there's no need for the eyes to have to divert from road to instrument panel.
The technology has been slow to catch on and is still mainly locked into expensive
luxury and performance cars. Many industry observers predict that this is about
to change and HUD will become an important addition to a vehicle's safety arsenal.
Manufacturers are working on versions that provide new types of safety information without distracting drivers. One objective is a windshield-wide display that can project sufficiently bright notifications such as warnings of pedestrians in the way or road shoulder lines in heavy fog.
While one analyst has said he expects the number of manufacturers using HUDs
to go up from nine now to 14 by 2016, he believes full-screen displays are at least
five years away and that even then they probably won't be on cars under $50,000.