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Automated Trailer Backup

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It was surprising enough to see cars and trucks that could parallel park themselves. Now there’s one more tricky driving task that’s been automated: backing up a trailer.

On F-150 pickups made since model year 2016, and on the Expedition full-size SUV, Ford offers what the company calls Pro Trailer Backup Assist. It will back up a trailer without the driver having his hands on the steering wheel.

Many are thinking, “If you can’t back up a trailer, you shouldn’t own one.” Maybe, but it’s possible a driver doesn’t have the neck mobility he once had. Or maybe another driver in the family struggles with trailer backing. Either way, it’s help—and besides, it’s optional.

Electronics Make It Possible

Like any electronic automotive capability—delayed windshield wipers, anti-theft engine immobilizers, cylinder deactivation, blind-spot monitoring, keyless start, smartphone links, hands-free lift gates—the technology is likely to proliferate. Although it hasn’t yet, it’s also likely to gravitate to smaller, cheaper tow vehicles.

Land Rover has a similar system, and Chevy dealers offer an after-maket system for some Silverados that have blind spot monitoring.

How Trailer Backup Assist Works

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Let’s see how the Ford system operates. Three things enable automated trailer backup to work: electric power steering, a backup camera and a programmable onboard computer.

Each trailer, to be backed up by the truck’s system, must be identifiable by the system. The system will store up to 10 trailers—great if you tow an RV and, say, a boat and a snowmobile trailer. Renting a towable cement mixer? You can enter that into the system, too.

Park the truck and trailer in a straight line on level ground. To enter a trailer into the system, first place a sticker on the frame of the trailer, from 7 to 22 inches from the center of the ball. Because of this requirement, gooseneck trailers and fifth wheels won’t work. Place the sticker on either fork of a “Y” frame.

Then take four measurements, in this order, and write them down: from the license plate to the center of the ball; from the center of the ball to the center of the sticker; from the backup camera to the center of the sticker; and from the tailgate to the center of the trailer axle, or to the md-point between axles on a dual-axle trailer.

Get into the truck and enter the information into the computer. Press the “on” button for the backup control, and use the arrows on the steering wheel to choose and select commands, numbers and letters on the screen. Name the trailer, then go through the menu to select trailer type, brake type and brake effort (higher for bigger trailers). Input the measurements in order, identified as “A” through “D.”

Look: No Hands

To use the system, shift into reverse with your foot on the brake. Turn the backup assist on and twist the knob to the left or right—whichever direction you want the back of the trailer to move. Then take your foot off the brake and your hands off the wheel. The truck will steer itself. You’ll have to apply gas and brakes. If you need to go in the other direction, stop and twist the dial again.

Repeated as often as needed to get the trailer where you want it.

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