As the race to introduce autonomous cars picks up speed, more automakers are introducing more advanced safety, infotainment and semiautonomous features to vehicles. Car tech has graduated from large, in-dash touch screens to technologies that can steer a car down the highway, connect it to smart home devices and even talk back to you.
At the same time, car buyers are increasingly focusing on tech rather than torque.
More than half of shoppers now say that in-vehicle technology is more important than a car's brand, according to a recent Autotrader study. Today's drivers also believe safety technologies, including blind-spot detection and forward collision-warning systems, should be standard on all vehicles.
Indeed, 3 out of 4 drivers who own a vehicle with some form of advanced driver assistance system (ADAS), such as auto-braking, said it makes them a better and safer driver, according to the survey. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also noted that 94 percent of accidents today are due to driver error, so it's crucial to understand how these technologies work and how they can protect you.
Despite this enthusiasm and momentum, it's still difficult to make sense of all the available high-tech options, many of which use different names for similar features, or use similar names for very different technologies. So consider this guide your comprehensive navigation system for everything that's available.
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Note that most of these options cannot be purchased separately. Instead, automakers offer them as part of a technology or safety package, with prices starting around $1,700 but easily reaching $3,500 or more. Furthermore, some technologies are available only on particular trim levels or special models, which drive up the cost further.
The good news is that many of the technologies are trickling down from high-end vehicles to budget compact cars, and a growing number are becoming standard features, such as emergency braking.
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 via the internet. These systems usually have touch screens and offer voice control, but they vary widely in terms of capabilities and support for smartphone apps. Each automaker offers its own system, and there are often several different infotainment systems within a single car line.
In the past, the primary differentiator between infotainment systems has been whether the car has its own built-in cellular connection or relies on the driver's smartphone to connect to the internet. However, as updated mapping and other software in the car have become more important, more automakers are including what they call "wireless modems" (meaning a cellular data connection). Many analysts predict that, within the next two years, most new cars will be connected.
Connected cars with built-in wireless connections can take advantage of options such as the ability to start or unlock the vehicle from anywhere,track teenage drivers and enable anti-theft features, such as remotely stopping a stolen car. After a free trial period, a monthly or annual subscription is usually required, starting around $15 a month. (Additional fees may be required for turning the car into a Wi-Fi hotspot.)
Connected car systems no longer automatically include onboard navigation systems. With free smartphone-based navigation programs, which are continually updated, companies like Mitsubishi have moved away from such expensive options, instead allowing new owners to display navigation information from their phones on the car's in-dash display.
Connected cars with built-in wireless connections let you start or unlock the vehicle from anywhere, as well as track teenage drivers and remotely stop a stolen car.
Nevertheless, built-in navigation systems have the advantage of working even when there’s no cellular coverage. And higher-resolution built-in nav systems are necessary for future semiautonomous and fully autonomous driving features, so smartphone apps will not completely supplant such services.
Apple CarPlay: Siri in the dash
While drivers can use a few selected smartphone apps, like Pandora, in most infotainment systems, all-in-one apps like Apple's CarPlay are now more popular. CarPlay mirrors a preselected group of apps in a series of screens designed for easy legibility and use on a connected car's LCD screen. CarPlay apps include maps, music and messaging programs. CarPlay works with iPhone 5 or later models, and a Lightning cable is recommended so that the phone's power doesn't run out. And for safety purposes, the phone's screen remains locked while it's plugged into the car.
CarPlay is now available in scores of cars ranging from Acura to Volvo. However, most car systems cannot be upgraded, so if you want this feature, ask the dealership before you buy. Apple iPhone owners should also know that CarPlay's functions are limited to what's in the phone; you cannot use Siri to adjust the temperature in the car or access other vehicle functions.
For older cars, aftermarket in-dash replacement systems from Alpine, JVC, Kenwood, Pioneer and Sony 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, as well as a wider array of apps, all of which are available on the dashboard screen when an Android phone is connected. Android Auto also now offers the wildly popular Waze live traffic and navigation program — a definite plus.
Like Apple's CarPlay, Android Auto is now available in scores of vehicles. Most cars with connected in-dash systems are now compatible with both. Google's software is subject to the same restrictions as Apple's when it comes to controlling aspects of the car, but it tends to be faster for navigation.
Android Auto now offers the wildly popular Waze live traffic and navigation program — a definite plus.
Alexa: Voice assistants in the car
Voice recognition isn't new to cars; it's been in navigation systems for years. And today, through a connected smartphone, you can even access Apple's Siri or Google Assistant. But in those cases, voice commands are limited. They can't be used to remotely start a car or open its windows. Siri can't even change the radio station.
Amazon's Alexa, on the other hand, is intended — via specific commands or "skills" — to interact with thousands of connected devices. It can turn on lights, open door locks or order pizza. Now it's being used to connect living rooms to cars.
Automakers — including BMW, Ford, Hyundai and Nissan — are adding Alexa to their vehicles. In most implementations, Alexa skills are strictly one-way — from the home to the car — and piggyback on existing car apps. In other words, calling out Alexa triggers the phone's app, so options are limited to a subset of what's available on the phone. You can ask Alexa to flash the car's lights, for example, but for other instructions, such as starting the car remotely, you also have to enter a spoken PIN.
In all of the current car applications, Alexa works only through a smartphone, providing an added level of security. However, Ford, Mercedes and others are looking at embedding it in cars in the future, as well as supporting Google Assistant.
Like add-on navigation devices, there are a growing number of Alexa-centric gadgets for the car. Garmin's Speak ($120) and Speak Music's Muse ($70) bring Alexa skills into the car — connected to your smartphone — so that you can call up the weather, music, Audible books and other options. These devices can't control anything in the car (for example, theyt cannot unlock the doors), but they offer added convenience for those addicted to their home voice assistants.
Parking assist: No more parallel-parking nightmares
Using video cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors, parking assist or active parking systems 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 and push a button, and the car will take over the steering, acceleration and braking to fit the vehicle into place. Although this feature is typically part of a technology package costing thousands, such systems are now available in a wide range of vehicles, from the Chrysler Pacifica minivan to the Toyota Prius.
Some less-advanced systems, such as the one in the Ford Focus, require the driver to control the speed using a foot on the brake. Automatic parking systems that can do the same for perpendicular parking are less common and tend to be overly complicated to use. On the cutting edge are BMW and Tesla systems, which allow you to fit the cars into tight spots using the key fob as a remote control.
Adaptive cruise control plus: On the road to self-driving vehicles
While fully self-driving or autonomous cars are not yet a commercial reality, many of the basic technologies involved are already available in vehicles on the road. Adaptive cruise control is the first component, which uses radar to maintain a safe distance from cars ahead. By combining that with lane-keeping technologies (using video cameras), many vehicles can drive down a highway on their own.
The latest Mercedes-Benz S-Class slows automatically for sharp curves and roundabouts using built-in maps from Here.
However, almost all vehicles — like those from BMW, Mercedes and Volvo — include sensors that require drivers to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel.
Many semiautonomous systems not only slow down a car for traffic but also come to a complete stop and then accelerate again when the traffic picks up. In general, however, these cars are not smart. They do not decelerate automatically for sharp corners or exit ramps. But there is one exception: the latest Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which slows automatically for curves and roundabouts using built-in maps from Here.
While much has been made of Tesla's Autopilot feature, like similar — and, in some cases, more advanced — systems from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, it's designed to be used only when the driver is paying attention and has his or her hands on the wheel. Furthermore, none of these cars has lidar (light detection and ranging) sensors, which are considered necessary to make fully autonomous cars safe.
Autonomous modes: Almost there
Breaking new ground in the self-driving-car space are two new systems that can, in fact, take over the driving tasks — but only under very specific conditions.
GM's Super Cruise, first offered in the 2018 Cadillac CT6, will drive the car by itself on certain highways at up to 85 mph. You do not have to keep your hands on the wheel (or keep touching the wheel). And because Super Cruise uses lidar-created maps (downloaded to the car), the system is steadier and smoother than any other so-called autopilot system available.
The caveats are that Super Cruise works only on certain mapped highways and that the driver does have to pay attention and be ready to take control at any time. (A camera in the steering stalk monitors the driver at all times, so technically, it's a Level 2 autonomous vehicle.)
Audi has said that Traffic Jam Assist, rated to control the car at up to 40 mph, will allow drivers to read texts or do other tasks behind the wheel.
Audi's AI, Traffic Jam Assist, has been touted for some time, and the company is expected to introduce it soon. Like GM's Super Cruise, it is designed to work on divided highways — but at much slower speeds and without the need for the driver to pay attention. Audi has said that Traffic Jam Assist, rated to control the car at up to 40 mph, will allow drivers to read texts or do other tasks behind the wheel. However, should traffic start moving more quickly, the human sitting in the front seat will have to take over, or else the car will stop.
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. And they finally got their way.
In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will require all vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds — including buses and trucks — and 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. These systems usually put a video view of what's behind the vehicle on the in-dash display and work only when the car is put into reverse (Tesla is one exception here). Shoppers should consider this is an essential technology to include in any automobile, including compacts like the Honda Fit, which, despite their size, still have blind spots.
Video rear-view mirrors: Better behind
In a further effort to improve visibility, automakers have wanted to eliminate rearview mirrors in favor of video cameras for years. One significant step toward that goal has been GM's video rearview mirror. Available in some Cadillacs, it uses a wide-angle video camera in back that has the advantage of never being obstructed by passengers or the rear roof pillars. The resulting image appears in the windshield-mounted rear-view mirror (like a regular mirror image). Several other automakers, such as BMW, have promised to adopt similar technologies in the future.
360-degree views: Look around
With the multiple video cameras now installed in many cars to monitor lane markings, blind spots and what's behind you, automakers are increasingly combining the views to give drivers a bird's-eye or 360-degree view of their surroundings.
While bird's-eye views may seem like a gimmick, they can be useful in some situations.
The video picture is typically displayed on a car's in-dash LCD display and uses software to stitch together the camera inputs to create a single image.
While bird's-eye views may seem like a gimmick, they can be useful in some situations. A single view of what's around your car can be extremely helpful in tight parking situations, for example, where you need to see the front and back of your car simultaneously as you maneuver a vehicle into place.
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 and even collision warnings can be projected onto the windshield, helping drivers keep their eyes on the road.
Now available in color, 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.
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), the Mazda 3 (starting around $24,000) and even the Mini Countryman (starting at around $26,600).
Auto-braking: Avoiding or minimizing impact
Used in conjunction with pedestrian-detection and collision-avoidance systems, auto-braking brings 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.
Shoppers should note that there is no standard for how auto-braking systems should work. So some are more cautious than others, stopping several feet short in some cases to eliminate any margin for error.
Nonetheless, these systems are considered to be so effective that they are available as options on vehicles ranging from the Mazda 3 and Subaru Impreza to luxury cars. Tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety 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.
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, such as the one offered in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, also look for possible impacts from the side. l
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.
Pre-Safe collision warnings: For other drivers
Mercedes-Benz currently offers these systems, and other car companies will soon. The safety systems work by flashing the hazard warning lights to alert another driver who is approaching too quickly from behind.
If the approaching driver doesn’t slow down, the car then not only tightens the seatbelts but also automatically holds down the brake if the vehicle is already stationary. The latter feature is intended to minimize the chance of whiplash and help avoid hitting cars ahead you.
Collision avoidance: Better still
These systems range from precrash preparation to full 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 pre-tightens seat belts and primes the brakes so that when a driver applies the foot pedal, it takes less pressure to bring the car to a full stop.
Adaptive cruise control: Made for long trips
Designed to help drivers during lengthy highway trips, adaptive cruise control uses radar, and sometimes 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 down your car to match the speed of the car you're following, accelerating and decelerating as needed. The driver can adjust the distance between the vehicles(usually in three settings: close, medium and far).
Night vision: See in the dark
Designed mainly to prevent collisions with pedestrians and deer, the latest generation of night-vision systems use far-infrared (FIR) cameras 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.
FIR sensors were initially considered to be exotic technology, but recently, they have come back into vogue, primarily as additional sensors in autonomous-car systems. Infrared cameras can succeed where lidar fails, for example, such as in heavy rain and snow.
Currently, however, night-vision FIR systems do not automatically trigger a car's brakes. That's because, while they can easily sense objects ahead, they may make mistakes in identifying exactly what they are seeing. (A person standing on the sidewalk, for example, doesn't represent the same danger as a deer moving along the side of the road.) Night vision is usually offered as a stand-alone option costing about $2,000, and is available on several models from Audi, BMW, Cadillac and Mercedes.
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 that the car is too close to an obstacle.
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.
Proximity Alerts can be helpful, especially in vehicles where it's not possible to see the front bumper (such as many sports cars and SUVs).
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 their effectiveness is questionable. 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.
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 inured to the alerts, so these systems work better in conjunction with auto-braking or collision-prevention packages.
Lane centering/lane keeping: Staying within the lines
Rather than just warning drivers that they are straying from their lane, lane-centering systems use the information from the camera system to actively correct the steering. The effect can be subtle or distracting, depending on the driver's abilities and the car.
Also known as lane keeping, it can be aggressive, jerking the wheel to let the driver know he is straying; in some implementations, it also steers the car down the center of the lane on its own.
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 rest.
Cross-traffic alerts: Virtual peripheral vision
Using a combination of sensors, cross-traffic warnings are typically used to aid drivers in 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 snowbank.
However, cross-traffic alerts, which may sound a gong or vibrate a seat, work only while the car is moving (slowly) backward. Some systems don't automatically brake the car, so drivers need to be cautious. Other implementations brake the car to prevent a collision.
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 cloverleafs 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. However, more studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of these systems.
Credit: Tom's Guide
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John R. Quain has been reviewing and testing video and audio equipment for more than 20 years. For Tom's Guide, he has reviewed televisions, HDTV antennas, electric bikes, electric cars, as well as other outdoor equipment. He is currently a contributor to The New York Times and the CBS News television program.