OKAZAKI, Japan — The last time I was in Japan was the first time I saw a car park itself.
It was 2003, and Toyota had developed for Prius a system that was the precursor for systems we see today: you control the speed and gear changes, it controls the wheel for a perfect parallel or perpendicular park.
Cool, I thought, even if I did start to wonder, “Hey, if you can’t parallel park, do you deserve to drive?”
What Mitsubishi showed us last week, in a city about a half-hour by train from Nagoya, takes self-parking to another level. You stop the car along a stretch of parked cars where you think there’s a spot — and get out.
With a remote control, you activate the self-parking feature. The car, this one an Outlander PHEV (for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle), drives forward while calculating distances to find a parking spot. When it does, it switches itself into reverse and parks.
When you return, you activate the car again and it pulls itself out for you.
It’s not ready for prime time, however. It takes too long to pull in and out — imagine having it back up traffic on Portage Avenue while it wiggles itself in and out — but it is an interesting development for a company whose reputation, on these shores at least, has been as a follower of trends rather than a setter of them.
What it is, as well, is something closer to production-ready than previous, more sophisticated self-parking cars. A number of years ago, Volkswagen showed off a self-parking Golf wagon. While it would pull out of a perpendicular spot and drive itself through a parking lot to greet its owner, its cargo area was so chock-full of computer components, it lost half its cargo space.
Instead, Mitsubishi’s little bit of autonomy doesn’t look autonomous at all. There are no spinning LIDAR antennas or obvious cameras hither and to on the roof, just the same kind of ultrasonic sensors you see on bumpers today.
Consumers can expect more going forward, as Mitsubishi is now part of the Nissan-Renault Alliance, thanks to an injection of US$2.3 billion in cash. The move, designed to help Mitsubishi recover from a fuel-economy scandal surrounding its line of tiny “kei” cars, paves the way for technology sharing, platform sharing, joint plant production and other forms of co-operation.
Mitsubishi Motors, on the eve of its 100th anniversary, brought a select group of Canadian automotive journalists to Japan in a bid, according to Mitsubishi Motors of Canada spokesman John Arnone, to “peel back the curtain” on a company currently ranked 19th by sales but with plans for significant growth moving forward.
Part of those plans include phasing out its last gas-powered car — in North America, at least — the Lancer, and shifting focus to crossover vehicles and green transportation. A third crossover is expected in the next couple of years. It will slip in between the compact RVR and mid-size Outlander in size, which will also result in Outlander growing in size and RVR shrinking.
Chief designer Tsunehiro Kunimoto said that third SUV might be seen at the Geneva International Motor Show in March. He said of the three recent crossover concepts — XM, eX and Ground Tourer — one will appear in production-ready form at Geneva. “I won’t tell you which one,” he said. “You’ll have to guess.”
Given the expected timeline of selling the new, mid-size crossover, that it would be the one unveiled in Geneva would be a good guess.
The company still has plans to introduce the Outlander PHEV to North America, but can’t say exactly when. That plug-in crossover is gaining traction in other markets, with 30,000 sold in Japan in 2015 and another 30,000 produced for export. It is currently hampered in North America by its popularity elsewhere and by low gas prices.
“We’d love to get our hands on some,” said Tony Laframboise, vice-president marketing and sales in Canada.