Liz Turner, in America, tests the self-parking car that could save marriages

It is the invention that some men will insist all women need, but which all sane drivers want: a car that parks itself. Hi-tech companies are racing to bring self-parking systems to the market, so we should start seeing a new generation of relaxed drivers within two or three years. And the best news is that such serenity may cost as little as the equivalent of £100. In the US they're already trialling it, and I was invited there to see if I dared park a car "hands-free".

It is the invention that some men will insist all women need, but which all sane drivers want: a car that parks itself. Hi-tech companies are racing to bring self-parking systems to the market, so we should start seeing a new generation of relaxed drivers within two or three years. And the best news is that such serenity may cost as little as the equivalent of £100. In the US they're already trialling it, and I was invited there to see if I dared park a car "hands-free".

I tried a system produced by Continental, which supplies electronic safety systems to manufacturers, including Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan. The executives on hand were rubbing their hands with glee because several European companies are interested in the set-up, and a Japanese firm was testing it that day.

It seemed apt that such a futuristic machine was waiting in the shadow of the eerie Pontiac Silverdome, near Detroit. The football stadium resembled a giant silver spaceship in the fog, and I half-expected Gort, the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still, to step out.

Continental had taken over the car park to show off its wares.The last time I tried a self-parking car, it was an egg-shaped, gull-wing-door effort called the VW Futura. It was 1992, and the car danced crabwise into a space.

So, I was a little disappointed to see an ordinary-looking Audi A3 waiting for us, wedged into a space between two trucks. The only visible difference was an infrared sensor built into the side indicator light. Inside, the only addition was a simple button on the dash. The system makes use of features already standard or optional on many cars. My first task was to get out of the space, with the help of the sensors that it would use to get back in.

A press of the button instructed the Focus to look for a space and I set off at the "searching" pace. As we passed an opening, the infrared sensor measured the distance to the kerb, while the anti-lock braking system measured the distance travelled. This allowed the car's brain to construct a model of the space. As it deliberated for a few seconds, some tiny lights on the parking system button flashed yellow and then gave the thumbs-up by turning green.

As instructed by engineer Stefan Lüke, I put the car into reverse, and took my feet off the pedals and my hands off the wheel. There was a lurch, and the wheel whirled in front of me, as if the car had been possessed by the ghost of a previous owner. The car reversed smoothly into the space, using the model it had constructed to position itself, and the automatic transmission's usual "creep" to move backwards without input from me.

Once we were in, the electronic steering wheel whirled to the right and it waited for me to select drive. I obeyed and it oozed gently forward, so we were perfectly parallel to the kerb and positioned equidistant to the cars ahead and behind. It applied the brakes with a smug flourish and all that was left for me was to put it in park.

There are many reasons to want this feature. It means less stress for those who can park, and less embarrassment for everyone else. We'll all save money because there should be fewer scrapes. Insurance premiums could fall. Alloy wheels - and marriages - could be saved.

Continental insists that the system will be affordable, assuming that cars have all the necessary systems, such as ABS and electronic steering already fitted. It is unlikely, however, that a production car would be allowed control of the brakes. If a sensor failed and the car damaged its neighbour, or if a child or dog ran behind, its manufacturer would need blame to rest with the driver.

The electronics giant Bosch recently demonstrated a similar system, although the prototype was a manual car, requiring the driver to accelerate and brake as instructed.

Toyota has beaten everyone, offering an assisted parking system on the Prius hybrid in Japan. The Prius requires you to judge whether a space is large enough, but the steering assistance can manoeuvre you into a parallel parking space or reverse into a drive. There are no plans to offer this yet in Britain, but it will be rolled out to other cars in the range, so it's bound to arrive eventually.

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