The parking-tech wars are escalating, as another new model can be equipped to almost park itself. The new 2011 BMW 5-Series is the first and only BMW at this time to offer the company's Parking Assistant feature at this time.
Like Active Park Assist, offered in Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles, and the Advanced Parking Guidance System (Lexus) and Intelligent Parking Assist (Toyota Prius), the system in the new BMW 5-Series actually does the steering—through the 5-Series' new electric power steering system—and guides the vehicle into a spot with an ideal trajectory.
While the Lexus/Toyota system, which has been offered for several years now, is camera-based, the new BMW system, like the Ford one, is sonar-based—using ultrasonic sensors to accurately gauge where neighboring vehicles are.
2011 BMW 5-Series
If you're traveling at less than 22 mph in a lane next to parking, the system is automatically scanning the adjacent lane for available spaces, using the ultrasound sensors, positioned in the side mirrors, to measure the length and width of potential spaces. The system looks for a space that's at minimum 47 inches longer than the total length of the car—so about 240 inches long for the 5-Series sedan. And yes, for vehicles equipped with Integral Active Steering, which turns the rear wheels slightly in the opposite direction as the front wheels at parking speeds, the system can take full advantage of it, cutting the minimum space needed by about a foot and a half.
Then if you come to a stop and shift to reverse, the system uses its memory of that scan to confirm whether or not there's an available spot that's large enough; or if you manually activate the system with the center-console button, the system will chime in, reminding you of spots that are large enough as you pass them slowly.
Simply put, as you modulate the brake and accelerator, the system steers the 5-Series into the spot. It's up to you to listen to the parking sensor system and stop and straighten the wheel when appropriate.
Like the Ford system, BMW's parking system only helps with parallel parking; the Lexus/Toyota system also helps with back-in perpendicular parking, though we've had limited success with that feature.
2011 BMW 535i (Euro spec)
One other advantage that the BMW system has on the others is that it will be offered with either manual or automatic transmissions.
The new system does best if you maintain a slow, steady speed, we're told, but it's remarkably forgiving if you happen to jam on the brakes and start back up, or if you head in a little too quickly.
We weren't able to test the Parking Assistant firsthand at our First Drive opportunity with a 2011 BMW 535i last week, but we'll update you as soon as we can with information on how it stacks up to the systems in Ford and Lexus vehicles.
In the meantime, check out this demonstration video from BMW.