Connected Cars: A Guide to New Vehicle Technology

Buying a car these days is about more than miles per gallon and horsepower. From elaborate infotainment devices with large touch screens to active safety systems, more and more shoppers are prioritizing tech over other features. The trick is making sense of all of the available options. Consider this guide your comprehensive navigation system to everything that's available.

Based on a 2014 study, 69 percent of vehicle owners would rather a car have the technology features they want rather than the color they want. But it's not just about being able to get the Pandora app on your dash. The same study says that 84 percent of vehicle owners prioritize safety technologies over infotainment.

Car manufacturers are increasingly featuring active saftey technology.Car manufacturers are increasingly featuring active saftey technology.Understanding all of these features is an important part of making the right buying decision -- and keeping friends and family safe. Systems that automatically brake a car or warn of impending collisions can help drivers avoid accidents. A 2008 study by the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Study found in 95 percent of accidents the critical factor was driver error.

MORE: Apple CarPlay FAQ: Everything You Need to Know

Unfortunately, most of these options cannot be purchased separately. Instead, automakers typically offer them as part of a technology or safety package, with prices starting around $1,700 but easily reaching $3,500 or more as options on mid-priced sedans. Furthermore, some technologies are still only available on particular trim levels or special models, which generally cost even more because they include expensive features like sunroofs and 20-inch wheels.

Nevertheless, many of the technologies now available should be considered essential to new car buyers. To help you understand them all and determine which are the most important to you, here's our guide to the safety features and technology available in current connected cars.

Infotainment Features

Connectivity: Built-in vs. Bring Your Own
A "connected" car refers to any infotainment in-dash system that can send and receive updated information wirelessly to the Internet. These systems usually have a touch screen and offer voice control, but vary widely in terms of capabilities and support for smartphone apps. Each automaker offers its own system, often several different infotainment systems within a single car line.

The primary differentiator between models is whether the car has its own built-in cellular connection or relies on the driver's smartphone to connect to the Internet.

The dashboard infotainment system of the Volvo XC90.The dashboard infotainment system of the Volvo XC90.Connected cars with built-in wireless connections can take advantage of options like starting or unlocking the vehicle from anywhere, as well as tracking teenage drivers and enabling anti-theft features like remotely stopping a stolen car. After a free trial period, a monthly or annual subscription is usually required, starting around $15 a month.

Connected cars that rely on the owner's smartphone to connect to the Web do not entail any additional fees but they also do not offer the remote control features. However, this less expensive approach does include live navigation and traffic information. Both types of systems now commonly include support to control popular Android and iOS smartphone apps, such as Pandora, on the car's dashboard screen. 

Apple CarPlay: Siri in the Dash
While iPhone owners can currently use selected apps in most infotainment systems, Apple is looking to offer a more seamless solution using an uber app called CarPlay. It is designed to make it easier for iPhone owners to connect to the dashboard and use a select number of apps (that Apple chooses), including maps, music and messaging. It will only work with iPhone 5 or later models using a Lightning cable. There's no wireless option, and the phone's screen will be locked while it's plugged into the car.

Apple CarPlay tutorial

CarPlay is only available as an option on Ferraris so far but more than two dozen automakers have promised to support the software in future vehicles, including Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. CarPlay compatible in-dash systems will also work with Google Android phones. Aftermarket in-dash replacement systems from Pioneer and Alpine are also available with CarPlay.

Android Auto: Google Maps in the Dash
Android Auto is Google's answer to CarPlay and boasts many of the same features, such as navigation and voice control, and a wider array of apps, all of which are available on the dashboard screen when an Android phone is connected. Android Auto is not yet available but is expected to appear in 2015. Google has signed up 28 automakers, including all of the most popular brands. Cars that support Android Auto will also work with Apple iPhones.

Android Auto

Expect to see many vehicles in 2016 with both CarPlay and Android Auto support.

MORE: Android Auto FAQ: Everything You Need to Know

Safety Features

Parking Assist: No More Parallel Hell
Using video cameras and distance sensors such as ultrasound and lidar, parking assist or active parking can tell drivers that their car will fit into a space and then perform the parallel parking maneuvers for them. All the driver has to do is pull alongside the nearest vehicle, push a button and the car will take over steering, acceleration and braking to fit the vehicle into place.

Mercedes-Benz's Active Parking Assist system can look for open spots and park your car for you.Mercedes-Benz's Active Parking Assist system can look for open spots and park your car for you.Some less advanced systems, such as in the Ford Focus, require the driver to do the braking. Automatic parking systems that can do the same for perpendicular parking are less common and tend to be overly complicated to use. However, one company says its fully automatic parking system, which can park a car without a driver (as demonstrated on an experimental BMW i3), will be introduced this year.

Semi-Autonomous Cars: On the Road to Self-Driving Vehicles
While self-driving or autonomous cars are not yet a commercial reality, many of the basic technologies involved are already available in vehicles. Using a combination of adaptive cruise control, automatic braking and lane-centering technologies, for example, many vehicles can drive down a highway on their own. 

The Volvo XC90 features hands-free driving, lane-changing and auto braking.

However, vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the new Volvo XC90 include sensors that require drivers to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel. Semi-autonomous features also mean that a car will slow down for traffic, come to a complete stop and accelerate again all on its own. These cars are not smart, however. They will not decelerate automatically for sharp corners or exit ramps.

Rear-View Cameras: Back Up with Confidence
More than any other recent technology, consumer and safety advocates have been pushing for laws requiring rear-view video cameras.

Subaru's rear-view camera in action.Subaru's rear-view camera in action.In the U.S., the National Highway Safety Administration will require all vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds --including buses and trucks -- manufactured on or after May 1, 2018, to come equipped with rear-view cameras that will, in effect, eliminate the blind spots that exist behind all vehicles. In the meantime, this is an essential technology to include in any automobile purchase, including compacts like the Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit.

Head-Up Display: Info on Your Windshield
Adapted from fighter jet systems, head-up displays use small projectors in the dash to reflect icons and basic information in an area of the windshield just within the driver's line of sight. Speed, turn arrows, even collision warnings can be projected in the display, helping drivers keep their eyes on the road. Head-up displays should be adjustable to accommodate drivers of different heights. One drawback is that such displays are often difficult to see if you wear polarizing sunglasses.

Head-up displays allow you too keep your eyes on the road.Head-up displays allow you too keep your eyes on the road.Initially available from such luxury brands as Audi, BMW, Lexus and Cadillac, head-up displays are now available in mass-market cars such as the Hyundai Sonata (starting around $25,000) and the Mazda 3 (starting around $24,000). 

Auto Braking: Avoiding or Minimizing Impact
Used in conjunction with pedestrian-detection and collision-avoidance systems, auto braking will bring a car to a complete stop without the driver's intervention. At speeds below 30 mph, these systems can prevent a collision. At higher speeds, they can reduce the severity of an impact. Auto braking also includes warning alarms, usually a loud bell and red flashing image in the center display.

This Volvo video shows the XC90 auto braking system bringing the car to a quick stop.This Volvo video shows the XC90 auto braking system bringing the car to a quick stop.These systems are considered to be so effective that they are available as options on vehicles ranging from the Mazda3 and Subaru Impreza to high-end luxury cars. Tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) show that these systems can minimize crash impacts.

Collision Warning: First Alert
Collision warning or collision alert is usually coupled with collision-avoidance and auto-braking systems as the first stage in an overall collision-prevention system. The collision-warning feature uses some of the same technology designed for adaptive cruise control to monitor the distance of vehicles ahead.

A Dodge Durango collision alert.A Dodge Durango collision alert.When the gap between your car and the car ahead narrows too rapidly, a loud alarm sounds and a red warning light appears on the dash. Some collision-warning systems also look for possible impacts from the side, like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Pre-Collision Systems: Proactive Braking
This combination of technologies primes the brakes for a panic stop and automatically tightens seat belts. Some systems anticipate being hit from behind. Mercedes-Benz's Pre-Safe Plus system, for example, uses radar in the back of the car to detect an imminent impact.

Mercedes-Benz Pre-Safe system

It flashes the hazard warning lights to the driver behind, and then not only tightens the seatbelts but also automatically holds the brake down if the car is already stationary. The last feature is intended to minimize the chance of whiplash and hitting cars ahead you.

Collision Avoidance: Better Still
These systems range from pre-crash preparation to fully automatic braking and pedestrian-avoidance. Using a combination of video cameras, radar and lidar (which uses pulsed laser light to measure distances), a collision-avoidance system will pre-tighten seat belts and prime the brakes so that when a driver applies the foot pedal it takes less pressure to bring the car to a full stop.

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Adaptive Cruise Control: Made for Long Trips
Designed to help drivers during lengthy highway trips, adaptive cruise control uses radar, lidar and video-camera sensors to monitor the distance between your car and the car in front of you. If your vehicle approaches a slower vehicle in the same lane, the system will slow your car down to match the speed of the car you're following, accelerating and decelerating as needed. The distance between the vehicles can be adjusted by the driver (usually in three settings: close, medium and far).

Because it uses many of the same sensors as collision-avoidance and lane-departure warning systems, adaptive cruise control is usually a standard part of a technology or safety package. 

Night Vision: See in the Dark
Designed to prevent collisions with pedestrians and deer, the latest generation of night- vision systems use far-infrared cameras, high-resolution displays and special software to recognize the heat signatures of pedestrians, cyclists and animals. Nearby threats are usually highlighted in yellow but warnings of impending collisions generally appear in a head-up display along with a bell or chime.

Night vision inside a BMW X5.Night vision inside a BMW X5.Night-vision systems do not automatically brake a vehicle, however, primarily because they can still make mistakes. Night vision is usually offered as a standalone option costing about $2,000, such as on the BMW X5 and Audi A6.

Proximity Alerts: Helpful Warnings
A growing number of vehicles, from the Tesla Model S to the Buick Regal GS, include proximity warnings. As you approach another vehicle or object in front or in back, an audible bell usually sounds, sometimes accompanied by a flashing animation in the dashboard's center screen warning the car is too close to an obstacle.

The Cadillac STS side mirror warns drivers of dangers lurking in blind spots before they change lanes.The Cadillac STS side mirror warns drivers of dangers lurking in blind spots before they change lanes.Proximity Alerts can be helpful, especially in vehicles where it's not possible to see the front bumper (like in many sports cars and SUVs). If a vehicle has parking assist or collision avoidance, the ultrasonic and camera sensors for proximity warnings are already in place. Proximity warnings, like lane-departure warnings, can be turned off.

Lane Departure Warning: Too Easy to Ignore
Using a camera that scans ahead of the car looking for lines on the road, lane-departure warning systems are common, but of questionable effectiveness. There are many different implementations. Some warning systems use chimes, others vibrate the steering wheel, and still others vibrate one edge of the driver's seat, depending on which line has been crossed.

A lane departure warning inside a BMW X5.A lane departure warning inside a BMW X5.However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has reported that lane-departure warning systems on their own do not reduce accidents, insurance claims or the number of related injuries. According to researchers, many drivers become accustomed to the alerts and inured to them. So these systems work better in conjunction with an auto-braking or collision-prevention packages.

Lane Centering: Staying Within the Lines
Rather than just warning a driver that they are straying from their lane, lane-centering systems use the information from the camera system to actively correct the driver's steering. The effect can be subtle or distracting, depending on the driver's abilities and the car.

The Mercedes-Benz Attention Assist feature asks if you need a break if you drift over the lines enough times.The Mercedes-Benz Attention Assist feature asks if you need a break if you drift over the lines enough times.If you are accustomed to hugging the yellow line, for example, you may find you are constantly fighting with a lane-centering system. Conversely, when coupled with lane-departure warnings, it can alert a drowsy driver that it's time to take a rest. (Also known as "lane keeping assist.")

Cross-Traffic Alerts: Virtual Peripheral Vision
Using a combination of sensors, cross-traffic warnings are typically used to aid drivers backing out of parking spaces and driveways. This feature is particularly effective when the driver's side view is blocked, such as by a van, fence or snow bank. However, cross-traffic alerts -- which may sound a gong or vibrate a seat -- only work while the car is moving (slowly) backward and will not automatically brake the car. Drivers still need to be cautious.

Subaru's Rear Cross-Traffic Alert system in action.

You'll find cross-traffic alerts in vehicles ranging from the Dodge Durango to the Cadillac ATS.

Adaptive Headlights: They Move With You
Designed to illuminate the road ahead, even around curves, adaptive headlights use motors that work in sync with the steering to point the headlights in the direction you are pointing the car. In general, this helps drivers see where they are going on clover leafs and other curves. However, adaptive headlights do not help you see around corners.

Adaptive headlights are often offered as part of a separate luxury or comfort package, usually costing around $1,300. According to a 2013 Highway Loss Data Institute report, these systems do not seem to prevent single-vehicle crashes, but they do reduce the likelihood of accidents with other vehicles.

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  • RCguitarist
    Aside from the heads up display and the nightvision, I don't need these features. I'm a great driver who isn't an idiot. But I am glad these features are coming about so that the mass collection of morons walking around on two legs have less of a chance of endangering me and my family. That's the only reason i'd be ok with widespread self-driving cars...but mine will stay manual.
  • Computer LVR
    There are only 4 things I look for in a car. Manual transmission, HP, engine sound and awd with a 50:50 split front:back or more or rwd
  • Osmin
    Human error is the most common cause of accidents and we have a big problem of distracted drivers today. If they made air bags mandatory, then they should at least have auto-braking mandatory. It would alleviate most fender benders,collisions, injuries, and tragic deaths. We can all believe we are excellent drivers but we are still vulnerable to distracted and careless drivers.