The most sophisticated technology owned by consumers today isn’t held in their hands; it surrounds them every time they get into their vehicles.
High-tech touches that previously were reserved for luxury vehicles are becoming commonplace even in the most affordable models, and those features will continue increasing as costs come down while interest and demand in the features grow.
When buying a car, many are now asking about such features as smart phone integration for hands-free driving, lane departure warnings, automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control – just to name a few.
With more technology on the horizon, drivers will have more features to choose from than ever before. That’s good news, given the effect that technology has had on safety.
“There’s a confluence of technology that has evolved at such an incredible speed that it’s created a fusion of opportunity nobody could have imagined,” says Gary Silberg, head of automotive for global auditing firm KPMG
The advent of techmobiles
Today’s cars are the incubators of some of the richest and most robust technology available, and the speed at which new innovations are being introduced to the automotive industry only continues to accelerate. The touchscreens, displays, reverse cameras and navigational devices that are becoming standard features in today’s vehicles provide drivers and passengers with not only a more sophisticated ride, but a safer one.
“I haven’t seen anybody come out with technology designed specifically for the auto industry that hasn’t been developed somewhere else,” Brugh says. As an example, he pointed to the backup camera, which soon will be as mandatory as seat belts and airbags.
Long before it made its way to the automotive industry, cameras were used for security, and that has given developers time to improve their features while at the same time bringing down the cost. Ditto for the touchscreen interfaces that are already ubiquitous on iPads and other mobile devices.
The automotive industry has then been able to adopt the technology and adapt it to what drivers want and need. In today’s high-tech world, the challenge isn’t necessarily getting all the features you want; the challenge lies in understanding and mastering the features you have.
“We are in an amazing era where the technology exists to actually help drivers prevent crashes,” says Alex Epstein, senior director of digital strategy and content for the National Safety Council. “In the past, it was about mitigating the damage. Now, the car may actually help drivers avoid an accident.”
Because of the rapid changes in technology, the National Safety Council partnered with the University of Iowa to address a new wrinkle that has developed due to the increase in technology: the lack of knowledge about how to use all the safety features on today’s cars. MyCarDoesWhat, a program dedicated to educating consumers about their vehicles’ safety technologies, helps drivers adopt safer driving habits by more effectively using the technology available to them.
“It’s the responsibility of the driver to know what their cars are capable of doing,” says Epstein. “There’s some fairly amazing new technology that’s starting to appear, but of course that’s only going to be effective if the driver learns how to use what is available to him.”
Knowing what’s at hand
Daniel McGehee, Ph.D., director of the Transportation and Vehicle Safety Research Program at the University of Iowa, is behind much of the research cited in the university’s National Survey of Consumer Driving Safety, showing the gaps between existing technology and consumer’s knowledge of how to use them.
“These technologies increase safety and assist drivers by preventing or lessening the severity of the crashes,” MeGehee notes, adding that the implementation of the online program “is designed to raise awareness of the technologies and how they can be used to keep us all safer on the roads.”
Results of the national survey revealed that 40% of drivers had found themselves in situations where their car behaved in a way they didn’t expect – or didn’t know how to respond – and it also showed a high level of uncertainty when it came to what technologies had to offer.
“This finding points to a huge opportunity to improve driver safety by increasing consumer understanding of these technologies,” the survey concluded.
Some of the most common new technologies being used – but also underutilized today are:
- Anti-lock braking system: The ABS prevents skidding by changing the pressure of the brake fluid to prevent the wheels from locking.
- Adaptive cruise control: ACC automatically controls the speed of your car to keep a set distance between you and the vehicle in front of you. More advanced versions even start and stop with traffic flow to ease the stress of driving in rush-hour conditions.
- Adaptive headlights: They basically follow the road with you. They measure speed and steering angle to cast their direction on the road ahead, which is particularly useful on curves.
- Automatic parallel parking: At the push of a button, sensors are activated to help you maneuver safely into the spot you want. It steers the car but the driver maintains control of the gears and brakes.
- Backing assist: A backup camera shows what’s behind your vehicle on a display screen in the middle of your console or on your rear-view mirror. By 2018, this feature will come standard on all new cars.
- Blind spot monitoring: Sensors alert the driver if there are objects on either side of the car. Some use lighted icons, others use chimes to alert the driver.
- Electronic stability control: ESC, which is in all cars produced after model year 2012, will automatically stabilize your car when it begins slipping – such as when making sharp turns, turning too fast or when you lose traction on a wet or icy road.
- Forward collision prevention and automatic braking: Both of these camera- or radar-based systems are designed to prevent rear-ending another vehicle. Forward collision systems warn drivers if they are about to hit another vehicle; automatic braking systems take it a step farther and apply the brake if the driver doesn’t.
- Lane departure warning: Drifting in and out of lanes causes an estimated 10% of all crashes, and lane departure warning systems play a key role in preventing them. Cameras in the car read the road’s lane markings and alert the driver if they cross the line. The alerts may be a warning sound, a flashing light or a vibration in the steering wheel.
- Tire pressure monitoring system: Properly inflated tires are more fuel efficient, last longer and prevent accidents. Since 2008, cars have been required to have a TPMS, which alerts drivers when their tires have lost 25% of their air.
Getting to know you
For consumers who are unfamiliar with the new features of today’s cars, or those who are largely uncomfortable with technology, just seeking information on their car’s features may seem intimidating.
McGehee’s research found drivers who don’t learn to use the available technology within the first 90 days of owning the car are unlikely to fully and properly use it. But for some it’s a matter of not knowing where or when to ask the questions.
The national survey found most drivers turn to the Internet when they’re looking for information on how a certain feature operates. Whether it’s through Google or another search engine, or by watching videos on YouTube, there are a number of ways to access more information.
MyCarDoesWhat.org offers videos, games and infographics to provide consumers with more information on how their vehicles’ high-tech systems work and how to make the most of them. The organization also has partnered with the National Auto Dealers Association (NADA) to help raise awareness of the available safety features and how to use them.
But the National Safety Council’s Epstein says that two of the best ways to learn more about your car’s technology and safety features are decidedly low-tech.
“The No. 1 go-to source for information should be your owner’s manual,” Epstein says. “Each car has a different set of capabilities, so you, as the operator, need to know when it works, how it works and its range of operation. The manual is a way to get the specifics on your exact car.”
Asking the dealership where you bought the car is also an option. Epstein says they are trained on the features of each car and some will even offer classes or workshops to familiarize consumers with the features of their new car. Regardless of how consumers learn these new features, the most important thing is simply that they take the time to do it.
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