Anyone who trailers a precious classic car or vintage racer has to face the ultimate, and sometimes humiliating, moment of truth: backing up into a tight space.
Let’s see. Steer right to go left… steer left to go right … Wait. Which way am I pointing?
Yes, it can be hard to negotiate in reverse with a car in tow, especially when the trailer is so big that you can’t see behind you. That’s when you enlist your spouse to go around back and guide you. This is a risky approach for any marriage. Although it can provide your buddies with a good laugh. Jackknife much?
Ford introduces a new piece of technology for the 2016 F-150 pickup truck that could eliminate much of the fear, and humiliation, of backing up with a trailer. Called Pro Trailer Backup Assist, the electronic wonder actually takes over the steering of the truck while the driver guides the backup proceedings via a dial on the dashboard.
The automaker is introducing the trailer system to its dealers and the media with hands-on demonstrations of how it works. I had the opportunity to try it out in the cordoned off parking lot of a Phoenix resort, where I was amazed at my skill at backing into a narrow slot defined by cones. With Backup Assist on, that is. With the system off, not so much.
The big pickup was hooked up with a midsize travel trailer so that rear vision was zero aside from the side mirrors. The parking slot was off to the side so that you had to make a 90-degree maneuver to slide the trailer in place. Sort of what you’d face when backing into a space to unload your car at a show or race track. Or lining up your boat trailer to go down a ramp into the lake.
Here’s how it works. Pro Trailer Backup Assist operates with a camera on the pickup’s tailgate that monitors the position of the trailer hitch. You place a special sticker on the trailer tongue, and then input some measurements of the trailer and its hitch that remain stored in the system.
When you are ready to reverse, turn on Backup Assist by pushing in the dial and letting go of the steering wheel. The dial is weighted to center so that the truck and trailer will go backward in a precise straight line, unlike the jiggling corrections with most humans in control.
Now comes the fun part. Watching your mirrors or looking over your shoulder, begin backing and steering by turning the dial right to make the trailer go right or left to go left. Let it go to straighten out. The steering wheel spins ghost-like as it reacts to the dial input. You are still in control, but the electronics do the calculating.
It is quite easy, and more intuitive than awkwardly turning the steering wheel in the opposite direction yourself to guide an uncooperative trailer. The truck’s electronic power-steering system, rather than hydraulic, allows the backup system to work. The system works only with conventional trailers, not goosenecks or fifth wheels that attach within the truck’s bed.
The F-150 has another trick that makes it easier to accomplish the dreaded hitch linkup when hooking the trailer to your truck. What usually takes a half dozen back-and-forth moves, and lots of hollering from your spotter, becomes a simple task of looking at the video-screen backup-camera display, where a dotted line shows you where to guide your truck hitch in relation to the trailer hitch.
The Pro Trailer Backup Assist system comes with the optional trailer package on most 2016 F-150 pickups, which will appear in showrooms this fall. It can also be had as a standalone option for base-model F-150 work trucks. Hitch Assist is already available on the 2015 trucks.