Monday, November 06, 2006

Look, Ma, No Hands! Parallel Parking for the Driving Challenged

I wasn’t paying that much attention to the car ad, but something caught my ear. So I looked up, and there it was: a man in a car that was parking itself. My first thought was that this was a joke. Surely this is a feature that no one was asking for. Surely this is feature that no one really needs.

In the click of a google of “Lexus parallel park”, I found that the new Lexus LS460 – and the Prius, too - can actually get into a parallel parking spot. All the driver needs to do is control the brake.

My wonderment here is profound. I understand that there are people who may not know how to parallel park. Who may, in fact, be too scared to try. But parallel parking is one of those things that works just like they say it does in the textbook.

I know that this is how it works, because it worked that way for me the first time I found myself having to parallel park. I remember it quite clearly. I was in a white rental car and had just dropped my boyfriend off at the First National Bank of Boston to run in and – in those pre-ATM days – go up to a teller and get some cash. Double parked, motor running, I figured I could sit there for a couple of minutes, not bothering anyone. But I was bothering a cop, who motioned me to move on. This was in downtown Boston, with its one way streets and convoluted traffic patterns, and I wasn’t exactly sure whether circling the block was an option. I envisioned getting lost, driving around for hours, breaking up with my boyfriend.

It’s not like I could call him on his cell phone or anything.

A few cars down, I saw that someone was pulling out.

I had never parallel parked before. I grew up in a city, but in my neighborhood there were driveways and an average of not much more than one car per household. If you parked on the street, it might be in front of another car. Or behind it. Never between two. Now I was living in a much more crowded urban area. But I didn’t own a car and was seldom in one.

I drew parallel to the car in front of the fresh parking space and put my flashers on. Nervously, cautiously, I started backing up and cutting into the space. With a little to and fro-ing, I was in. It worked exactly like they said it would. A textbook case.

It was years before I had to parallel park again, but when the time came, and I was forced into urban car ownership by suburban employment, I had supreme confidence that I would be able to do so.

And indeed I was.

No one who lives and parks in a dense city environment can get by without acquiring this skill. My neighborhood has residential parking stickers. Since there are 3 or 4 times more stickers than there are spaces on the street, this just entitles you to drive around for an hour hoping to find one.

In self preservation, I have become exceedingly skilled at parallel parking. In fact, I would even put myself in the 99.99th percentile here. I’m that good. My personal best was so tight that I found barely an inch to spare on either side once I’d gotten into the space. That it took me 45 minutes to park, and that I burned out my clutch doing so, is irrelevant. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to snap a photograph of my New Beetle in that little space. I was so proud!

Now this execrable decision on the part of Lexus to help the parallel-parking challenged. The one mechanical skill I have is being automated and obsoleted.

In a parallel universe, where business would focus on “because we should” rather than “because we can,” automotive engineers would spend their time making cars safer, more energy-efficient, and even more comfortable, rather than spin their wheels figuring out how to get a car to do something that any driver with half a brain and enough neck strength to look in his rearview mirror can do for himself.

3 comments:

John Whiteside said...

Ah, but you still live in Boston and know how easy parallel parking actually is. After my years of happily zipping into spots two inches longer than my car, I moved to Houston, where I found myself constantly wondering, "Why is that person abandoning his car in the middle of the street?"

Eventually I realized that by getting their vehicle to a stop somewhere within eight feet of the curb, they were under the impression that they had just "parallel parked."

I've watched people have their passengers jump out of a Ford Focus to help them with the rough task of paralleling parking in a space three car lengths long here. Outside of dense cities with lots of curbside parking, it's really a dead art.

txyankee said...

I wonder how much those options are... of course, if you can afford the Lexus or Prius, I imagine you can afford the option.

Charles H. Green said...

I love it.

You hit on a great point in your summary comment, focusing on “because we should” rather than “because we can."

That's precisely the trouble with a whole lot of product design these days. Look at almost any cellphone/PDA/camera combination and you realize there is no rhyme or reason here based on customer preferences, just filling a gap in a "logically possible" set of permutatations by some engineer who never had to talk to customers.

But it's worse: a whole lot of software is in love with itself, and this "how cool is this" attitude, I believe, is partly responsible for the consumer-hating policy of introducing beta software as finished product.

We wouldn't accept a phone service with something less than 98% dial-tone; why should we accept 1.0 software which is getting fixes in a week's time? I once complained about some horrendous feature of a new software product, and was literally told, "come on, what do you expect, it's 1.0!" as if that excused things.

The lost art of parallel parking is an apt metaphor for our lost inability to deal artfully with the requirements of getting along in a world populated with other human beings.