Zen and the art of parking a car

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Our cars rock a lot of technology, and while some of it is neat, some of it is silly and even insults our intelligence.

A small example: the ability of a car to automatically park in front of you, parallel or perpendicular.

First, it’s hard to believe anyone actually uses it. Why would anyone with parking chops bother? By the time you’re fiddling with setting the thing up, you might already be parked. I have never tested this function on a press truck, because who cares. It exists on a personal vehicle and has also remained unused there. Unfortunately, part of the purchase price of my car paid for it.

So I have no idea if it actually works, but let’s assume it performs brilliantly. It’s still a minor insult.

What is the most feared part of an RDW driving test? Parking traffic jam. And rightly so, because what is the part that most new drivers succumb to? Parking traffic jam. What do some drivers with years of experience still seem to struggle with? Parking traffic jam. Heck, some people aren’t even particularly good at getting between the lines of a perpendicular space.

Your answer might be, hey, that’s the argument that favors this feature: Here’s a task that some people struggle with, and here’s a great technological solution to their problem. But it’s not a solution – it simplifies their problem, keeps it from being addressed.

JFK called for doing things “not because they are easy, but because they are difficult”. Automatic parking is the easy way out.

Why is parking even with driving tests? Because it reveals whether a driver is in good control of their vehicle; has a spatial insight into the dimensions of the car and its environment; and that they understand the geometry involved in maneuvering. Parking tests competence, mastery of the machine. If a driver can’t handle this little, low-speed idling bit, how well will they perform the high-stakes things they encounter along the way?

Maybe parking and other driving duties are secondary, but they are also a privilege.

This came to my mind because I was training a teenage driver, and one of the trickiest lessons for her was the concept that the rear wheels are the pivot point for close-range maneuvers. This includes turning corners, avoiding curbs, not driving over my sprinkler heads, etc., so it’s an important concept. She does really great when driving on roads and highways, but until she can place a vehicle exactly within inches of where it needs to be, she’s not in full control yet.

Here’s the question of greater autonomy written small: Automakers and tech companies are competing for autonomy, but many of us aren’t interested. How many Autoblog readers are comfortable relinquishing control of their vehicle… one way or another, ever? You love driving and as a small part of that you probably take pride in your parking skills. Perhaps autonomous features, either fully self-driving or small features like this one, will one day live up to the hype and give us safer roads (or in this case, parking lots?). But they are robbing something from us.

Parking offers an eternally fresh set of opportunities for small victories in life. Every parking space has its own problems, and even the most experienced driver sometimes has to cancel the first attempt and try again. If you like Wordle or the NYT crossword, parking is another kind of puzzle that is fun to solve.

Maybe you’re a technophile and you think it’s cool to push a button, run your car on “Autopilot” or whatever and be totally magical. That might be fun for a while, but eventually it’s hollow. A novelty, not an achievement. Not your performance anyway.

Compare the automatic parking button with another parking technology – front and rear sensors. That’s an absolute delight, and here’s the difference: the sensors provide useful information, but you perform the manoeuvre. They don’t take the controls off your hands.

We could interface here with other technologies like Tesla Summon (Jesus, can’t you make it a few steps?) or automated trailer backing. But that’s niche. Few drivers need to support a trailer; everyone should know how to park.

Automakers will come up with all kinds of features if we pay for them. Sometimes I wish they just stopped. How soon before we don’t have to do anything ourselves, before there are no more challenges to take on? No shifting gears, no looking over our shoulder, no keeping an eye on closing speeds, no parking worries. A life of pure ease. Like that bloated spaceship, spoiled passengers in Pixar’s “Wall-E.”

Nothing about driving, not even how you park, should be taken lightly. Everything you do behind the wheel puts yourself and others at risk. That’s sobering. But it makes you feel alive.

Maybe parking and other driving duties are secondary, but they are also a privilege. In Zen practice, household chores are a form of meditation. They are the way to enlightenment. No act is too small not to be done with humility and care. A cleverly executed parallel parking job feels good, right? It’s a little glittering moment where you’ve applied your mind and your skills and succeeded.

We need more of those moments, not less. Why push a button and erase one of life’s little joys?