New Technologies That Help You Stop, Go, and Stay In Your Lane

Years ago I heard a story about a retiree with a Winnebago who drove off the highway onto the side of the road. As his vehicle was being towed out of the tall grass, he told the policeman that  a faulty cruise control was the cause of the mishap. “I put it in cruise, “ explained the owner. “Then I went back into the kitchen to make a sandwich.  Everything was fine for about 15 minutes until I came to this curve in the road.”

Although this story is a few years old, we still have some presumptions today with regards to new technologies in our vehicles. We assume newer features are going to take over the driving and allow us to do more non-driving functions.

Safety Technologies That Have Become Common in Today’s Vehicles

Over the past 30 years, cars have added some safety features that have become part of most every new vehicle on the market.

Airbags were first introduced as a convenient safety feature to protect the driver. Tucked away in a large hub in the center of the steering wheel, these slower deploying units would save lives and reduce injuries, but often cause side effects like burning on the driver’s face or wrists, and if a person was too close to the wheel, could even cause neck injuries.  Passenger airbags arrived later, and in at least one case got more expansive in it’s coverage – in 1996, Cadillac featured it’s “Airbank System” to protect all three front row passengers in their DeVille models (remember bench seats?).

Airbag Systems have progressed to where they are today – deploying from not only the smaller hubs in the steering wheel and from the non-visible compartment in the dashboard, but the outside seat bolsters, dropping down from the A and B and even C pillars to produce a “curtain” airbag on each side, and even knee airbags for drivers from under the steering wheel. It’s a system you hope you never need to use, but your glad it’s there.

Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS) were introduced to keep drivers from losing control of their vehicles when the need arises to make a quick stop, and a driver reacts to a situation by slamming their foot on the brake pedal.  ABS does as it’s name implies – it prevents the brakes from locking by pumping the brakes – at a much faster speed than a driver could do manually (several hundred times per second). Despite the loud chattering noise, the car will safely stop without sliding forward or to each side.

Traction Control Systems (TCS) (or other variants of the name), are built upon the ABS, and prevent the wheels from spinning and the car from sliding when you are driving on a slippery surface, or are starting up on a slippery surface after a stoplight.  This is done by applying braking to wheels that are slipping, and reducing engine power to the non-gripping tires. This reduces or eliminates spinouts or loss of control of the steering in bad weather/traction conditions.

Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and it’s naming variations, such as Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) or StabiliTrak for General Motors products, utilize ABS and TCS systems to minimize loss of steering control of the vehicle, especially on wet or slippery surfaces. It applies the brakes independently to each wheel to keep the vehicle straight, countering over steer or under steer situations, and reduces engine power as needed. Thus, the undesired act of “fishtailing”, where the rear of your vehicle slips sideways and you start to spin around, is slowly becoming a less of an occurrence.

Backup Cameras have grown in popularity, and caught on more quickly with the buying public.

After several changes to the mandate, the current requirement from the Nation Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is that all new cars sold in the United States by May 2018 must have a backup camera.

       

The camera is mounted on the trunk or lift gate, usually under a hangover to a recessed portion above the license plate, so it is mostly protected from the elements. Early aftermarket systems (and unfortunately a few new cars) have the viewing screen in the rear-view mirror, while the most commonplace for viewing is a screen mounted on your dashboard, and if your car comes with a Navigation system, it will share it’s display.

When I am demonstrating a vehicle with a customer, I teach them how the backup camera works, but caution them not to totally rely on it. I recommend they look at the screen, but also look at both side mirrors when reversing the vehicle. The backup camera can see what is in back of the car, but the side view mirrors can show you what is on either side of the car, out of the range of the camera lens.

All of the above mentioned features were ideas that were first put into production on more expensive, luxury vehicles, and moved it’s way down the automotive food change to the most affordable of cars.  Today, these features are built into just about every new car you can buy in this country.

And Now for Something Totally New…

Driver Assist Features are newer technologies that take safety to the next level.  They have emerged in vehicles in the past ten years, and have quickly become part of the wider scope of all car maker’s product lines at a dizzying fast pace in the past three to four years.  These features have also trickled down from the high end luxury, through the top trim levels of some models, and depending on the carmaker, are now offered all the way down to basic models.

Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) – This feature allows you to set a distance between yourself and the vehicle in front of you.

     

With ACC, your car stays at a preset distance between yourself and the car in front of you.  As it slows down, your car will also slow down. Some newer systems – like the one on the 2018 Acura TLX, for example –  will automatically slow your car down to a complete stop, if traffic stops, without touching the brake – and with a slight touch of the gas or Resume button, it will take your car from a stop and accelerate to your preset cruising speed, keeping the speed of the car ahead of you in check.

     

Setting the distance between you and the car ahead is a useful option.  However, if you set it too far away, cars can pull in front of you, closing in your distance, and will cause your vehicle to slow down and create that length of space again. Then another car may enter that space, and your car will pull back again. So the distance feature may take some adjusting when you first use it.

Forward Collision Warning (FCW) and Collision Mitigation Braking System (CMBS) (names vary by car maker) – Takes ACC a step further, and detects if the car in front of you, or any object, is stopping, has stopped, or is stationary. FCW warns you of an impending collision, and is designed to make you alert, in case you are distracted, so you can react and take steps to avoid an accident. CMBS takes it one step further, where the car will detect you are not taking evasive action  so it will apply the brakes in a manner to reduce or possibly avoid a collision. Since the brakes are an ABS system, the car will stay in the same direction, and in most conditions, will come to a complete stop without skidding, albeit abrupt. Some systems are now detecting pedestrians walking in front of your driving path. Acura introduced it’s CMBS in the United states in 2006 with it’s RL model, and now every manufacturer has some form of this feature.

Even though some car brands may call it a collision avoidance system, it is NOT an accident prevention system.  As an auto sales professional, I never say to a customer that they won’t crash into anything again. Certainly, that is the goal of this driver-assist feature, and in a lot of cases, an accident is avoided with this technology.  However, an accident can still result due to certain conditions, such as slippery or gravel roads, rain or snowstorms, reflective sunlight, or other causes.  If any system would totally eliminate accidents – would carmakers still need to put airbags in your car? I don’t see any of them taking that feature out. Consult with your car’s owners manual for a full explanation.

     

Lane Departure Warning system (LDW) and Lane Keeping Assist System (LKAS) – These features determines if you are drifting from your lane into the next lane, and warns you with a flashing light and icon in the center of your driver’s display (LDW) and/or a vibration in the steering.  LKAS will actually guide you back into the lane. However, it isn’t a hands-free system – it only centers you back in for a few seconds.  It’s up to you to take control and actively steer the vehicle once it has been corrected. . A related feature call Off-Road Mitigation performs the same function if you are drifting off the side of the road.

      

This system is not the same as Lane Change Assist, which warns you of a vehicle rapidly approaching you at high speed in your adjacent lane – that is connected with another feature, the Blind Spot Monitoring, which uses different sensors. See my previous article.

The above mentioned Driver Assist Features (ACC, FCW, CMBS, LDW, LKAS) operate from a front facing camera on the windshield in the area of the rear-view mirror, or by a sensor located in the front grille, or both. Some cars, like Subaru, use a two camera system mounted behind the windshield.  By using cameras and sensors together, these systems can provide protection if one method is inoperable – if sun glare blocks out the camera’s vision, or if mud or snow block the radar sensor, the other device can function.

The CMBS and LKAS systems are activated when you turn on the main cruise control switch. Separate buttons adjust the car length distance on the ACC and detection of lanes for the LKAS.

While these Driver Assist Features are still offered as options on some car brands, the trend is to make them a standard in every trim level, including the least expensive base models. Toyota has had these feature is their smaller Corollas for almost two years, and with the introduction of the redesigned 2018 Camry, almost all of their product line includes them, starting with the base models.

Two features – Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) and Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA), are still not on any base trims – you still need to purchase higher trim levels or option packages to get them. Is it because they operate off of their own rear mounted sensors, not associated with the front camera and sensors, and it’s an additional cost to add them to the vehicle? Let’s see what happens in a few years.

How Will These Feature Effect Our Driving Habits?

A salesman at a dealership I previously worked was asked by a customer “should I spent the extra money and get the next trim level, and get the Emergency Braking (CMBS) and Lane Keeping and Adaptive Cruise features?” My former co-worker, who wanted to sell the lower trim level car they test drove, replied “You only need those features if you’re sleeping when you drive.  If you don’t sleep, you don’t need them.  I don’t have them in my car because I’m awake when I drive”. I don’t work at that car dealer any more, and I found out that neither does he.

Remember, these are Driver Assist Features.  They give you some extra help in reducing accidents and injuries, and I’ll take all the help the car can offer.

Is this the beginning of the autonomous driving car? It certainly is the building blocks for it. If you buy a car with these features, remember it is NOT an autonomous driving car. It does not give you an excuse to daydream, gawk at the pretty girls walking by, look at a video on your phone, TEXT, play cards, play candy crush, eat a full meal, or go to the back of your Winnebago and make a sandwich.

No matter how many safety features you put in a car, there is no substitute for an alert, cautious, responsible, attentive driver.

Will Schirmer’s passion and knowledge of cars extends almost 40 years. Will has been a certified sale professional with three car manufacturers, and is now an Insurance Advisor, providing coverage for client’s automobiles, homes, specialty items, as well as financial protection for families.  Contact Will at will@willschirmer.com