Behind the wheel of the new Ford Focus week 5

Well the time has come. I have been putting it off and largely procrastinating about it but the time has come to test out the Ford Focus “Active Park Assist” which is part of the £525 “Convenience Pack” optional extra (which also includes electrically assisted folding wing mirrors) on our Focus 1.6 EcoBoost Titanium. This pack is only available on Titanium and Titanium X models and comes as standard on the Titanium X.

Why have I been putting it off? Well the main reason is the idea makes me a little nervous. A car that can park itself, why on earth would I need one of those? Up until now I’d figured I could pretty much park a car in any circumstance and yes I have been known to perform the odd parallel parking manoeuvre and no, it wasn’t part of the driving test back when I had to sit it. But seeing as the Focus Ford gave us has the “convenience pack” fitted I thought it would be a real shame if I didn’t give it a go. Now on thinking this through I figured there was no point waiting until its quiet and there weren’t many cars on the road as nobody should need assistance parking when you can pretty much leave the car anywhere. No this had to be at the busiest time (or what passes for busy in a sleepy Norfolk market town). I chose market day, that day of the week when the high street is as chaotic as it gets and is chock-a-block with pedestrians and traffic (including the odd tractor) but, if you’re lucky the odd parking space may just appear at the side of the road for those brave enough to try parallel parking when everyone is watching (or, of course, you have a car that can park itself!)

The Ford Focus has various lasers incorporated into each body panel which measure the spaces in between parked cars. This clever system is so exact that a space only has to be around 1.2 times the length of the Focus – this means that, if it seems like there’s room for the Focus to fit in a space, it’ll probably be able to park there. As opposed to a conventional parallel park, one performed without the aid of technology, which frequently requires several attempts if the driver misjudges the angle of approach, the on-board computer can precisely calculate the amount of turn needed. This should make the initial attempt the only one required, which provides the extra benefit of not obstructing other road users for longer than is absolutely necessary.

OK so let’s put it to the test. I pressed the “Auto Park” button and off we went down the high street in search of a space. The first trip around was fruitless but on the second attempt I saw what might be a space (although I would never have attempted it normally). I slowed down and put the indicator on, the display read “searching for parking space” and then, sure enough, the car went “ping!” we have a live one! The display then told me to “release steering and engage reverse” which I did. I was now hands free and just operating the pedals. There was a slight queue of traffic behind me which, under normal circumstances would probably be a little impatient but on seeing me with my hands behind my head (yes I was making a point) they were probably as intrigued as I was to see how this thing was going to end.

Gliding backwards into the space the beeps got closer together until it looked like I was going to hit the car behind (I was being very gentle on the accelerator)but thankfully no, it then asked me to drive forward and it straightened up illuminated one final message indicating the manoeuvre was complete and that, as they say, was that. The guy driving the car behind me did have a long bemused look at me as he drove slowly past to which I just shrugged my shoulders as if so say “oh doesn’t your car do that?”

Honestly I would challenge anyone not to smile broadly when they first witness the steering wheel moving on its own and the car effortlessly sliding into a tight parking spot.

Now Ford are very keen to point out that this is not some “auto pilot” feature and that the driver must stay aware of other road users and potential hazards and is still in control of the car but I prefer to see it as the beginning of a path that will ultimately lead us to the fully automatic car.

Now that is a scary proposition.

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