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Guide to new car technology

From blind spot detection to parking assist, find out about the tech behind the hype.

To help make driving safer and more comfortable, new cars are increasingly being fitted with safety assist technology. This technology helps avoid collisions and, in some cases, even lets the car partly or wholly drive autonomously.

These days, no car can get a 5-star ANCAP safety rating without having some sort of safety technology.

Keep in mind that while innovative new technology is great, it should never be used to compensate for a tired, distracted or lazy driver.

However, combining new car assist technology and features with safe driving habits is a great way to help decrease your chances of a serious accident.

Autonomous emergency braking

Autonomous emergency braking (AEB) is quickly becoming a commonplace inclusion in new vehicles. It uses sensors to warn the driver about collisions and, if necessary, autonomously apply the brakes. Cars with AEB have sensors, cameras, LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and radar systems to detect cars, humans, cyclists and large animals in the front and to the sides of the vehicle.

The software constantly monitors and then alerts the driver of possible collisions. Some cars sound an audio alert or vibrate the steering wheel, others have voice commands. If no action is taken and a collision is imminent, AEB will do what its name suggests and slows down or stop the vehicle.

Pros

  • Can prevent collisions or mitigate the severity of a crash

Cons

  • Can be affected by weather conditions
  • AEB is not infallible and has been found to incorrectly activate
  • Drivers may become reliant on it

Adaptive cruise control

Adaptive cruise control (ACC) has taken analogue cruise control and enhanced it. Using sensors and cameras, the cruise control system can automatically increase or decrease speed based on what is happening up ahead and maintain a preset distance. More advanced systems can bring the car to a complete stop (in traffic, for example) and then accelerate back to travelling speed when appropriate. Car manufacturers occasionally have their own names for ACC. These include Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (Tesla) and Toyota Safety Sense.

Pros

  • Good for highway driving
  • Can improve fuel efficiency
  • Helps prevent you from speeding

Cons

  • ACC can lead you to pay less attention while driving
  • It may also make you susceptible to drowsiness
  • Some systems deactivate below a certain speed

Adaptive headlights

Your eyes follow the road but traditional headlights do not. That's where adaptive headlights come in. They are linked to the steering system and swivel based on your direction of travel to follow the road. This greatly enhances visibility during night drives.

Pros

  • Makes night driving easier and safer
  • Minimises glare from lights

Cons

  • Cost of repairs

High beam assist

High beam assist detects oncoming traffic and dips your high beams accordingly. Helpfully, this can also be combined with an adaptive headlight system.

Pros

  • Helps drivers with visibility

Cons

  • The technology is prone to error
  • It may be an optional extra when purchasing a car, so cost is a factor

Electric and hybrid vehicles

The uptake of electric and hybrid vehicles has been slower in Australia than in other markets. This is due to a number of factors, one being the lower number of electric charging stations. But there have been a number of electric and hybrid vehicles released by manufacturers in recent years including Volvo and Nissan. If you're looking to save on fuel and do your bit for the environment, you can consider your electric or hybrid options.

Pros

  • Save on fuel costs
  • You can receive a government rebate for your vehicle purchase
  • Improved driving experience
  • Lower maintenance costs

Cons

  • More expensive
  • Limited choice of vehicles
  • Limited charging stations

Blind-spot detection/monitoring

Having more eyes on the road is always a good thing and blind spot detection/monitoring helps with exactly that. Cars fitted with blind-spot detection have sensors that scan the sides of your vehicle and flash warning lights in your mirrors if there is a car or object in your blind spot.

Basic systems beep if you attempt to change lanes when it's not safe to do so and more advanced versions will intervene by auto-steering or braking, preventing you from changing lanes.

Pros

  • Helps drivers detect others in their blind spot

Cons

  • You may become too reliant on it rather than your own visuals
  • Some systems may be too sensitive or alert when not needed, for example, when turning a corner with multiple lanes

Emergency assist

Emergency assist (sometimes called emergency call) detects if the car has been involved in a serious accident and automatically contacts emergency services. In some vehicles, it activates when the airbags deploy. It can also guide emergency services to the car's location.

Pros

  • Useful in an emergency situation especially if you are unable to reach your phone

Cons

  • It could contact emergency services when they are not required

Lane departure warning

This feature could be a saviour for those who are momentarily distracted. It warns the driver, either through steering wheel vibrations or beeping, when the car changes lanes "unintentionally".

The systems use a range of inputs to determine how drowsy the driver is or if the car is changing lanes without indication.

Pros

  • Can be good for long drives and help prevent drifting into oncoming traffic

Cons

  • If you're fatigued you need to stop and rest, not just have your car send out alerts

Rear cross-traffic alert

These are sensors on the back of the vehicle that helps the driver avoid collisions when reversing. The system monitors both sides of the car and warns the driver of any incoming objects. Advanced systems will autonomously brake if something is detected.

Pros

  • Has the potential to prevent devastating driveway accidents involving children, adults and even animals

Cons

  • Like all of these technologies, it shouldn't replace driver awareness

Parking assist

If you can find a parking spot, parking assist will help get you into it. Cameras and sensors judge whether you will fit into the spot and if so, will guide your car in. It works for both reverse and parallel parking.

Pros

  • Can help get into tricky spots or if you have trouble parking for any reason

Cons

  • The assist feature can have errors and you will still need to be able to park the car yourself

360-degree imaging

This is just like a reverse camera but for all sides of the vehicle. External images from around the car are displayed on the dash to help when parking or performing fine manoeuvres.

Pros

  • Handy if you're a smaller person or not as flexible and you find it hard to visually check around the vehicle
  • Could help you spot vulnerable road users who aren't visible in your own field of vision

Cons

  • Can narrow the driver's focus to inside the car and keeps them from watching what is going on around them

Lane keep assist (LKA)

Lane keep assist goes by a few different names, but how it works remains the same. The vehicle detects if you're veering out of your lane without indicating and intervenes to steer you back on course. The system will sound a lane departure warning first.

You can get LKA-equipped cars from many major car brands now. They ordinarily have a camera to detect road markings.

Pros

  • If you happen to fall asleep at the wheel, or turn around to attend to your children, this system will prohibit you from crossing into the next lane or driving off the road

Cons

  • Usually LKA is offered as part of an optional safety or driver assist package, which dealers can charge up to four figures for
  • Poor or worn road markings could confuse the system

Driver attention detection

Several automotive manufacturers now incorporate a form of driver alertness monitoring, and it might have a different label depending on the brand. It works by judging a driver's steering input, the vehicle's positioning in the lane and things like your posture, eyes and head direction to see if you've fallen asleep. Volkswagen's software can even identify if a driver is having a medical emergency and pull compatible cars safely to a stop.

Pros

  • This feature may help avoid crashes caused by medical emergencies
  • You may be prompted to take a break if the car detects you are tired

Cons

  • Having the feature set up may give drivers a false sense of security and cause them to rely on it

Speed alert/intelligence speed assist

A car with a speed alert assist will prompt you if you're over the limit and some vehicles even let you set your own upper boundary.

Pros

  • Speed alerts can assist you on long drives
  • Being able to set an upper boundary is useful if you regularly drive on the same roads

Cons

  • On longer drives, drivers may become reliant on it rather than stopping and resting

Pre-collision assist

Pre-crash or pre-collision assist takes the readings of driver inputs, sensors and cameras and can prepare the occupants for a smash. This may be done through tensioning the seat belts to restrict movement, altering seat positions to optimise airbag deployment and even closing the windows or sunroof. When combined with AEB, pre-collision assist can mitigate or avoid an incident altogether.

Pros

  • It can mitigate the damage caused by a car crash or circumvent the collision

Cons

  • Some systems are not autonomous; they require the driver to be in the process of responding to an emergency
  • Some systems are the most effective for only certain types of crashes namely frontal and side impacts

Traffic sign recognition system

Traffic sign recognition enables a car to interpret speed signs and other road markers. It then displays a graphic on the instrument cluster or head-up display. Some cars will even detect school zones.

Pros

  • Stops drivers missing a speed, stop, no-entry or no-overtaking sign

Cons

  • A sign could be missing, obscured or defaced
  • Drivers may become reliant on this system

Bottom line

Like all new technology, new car tech is not perfect and some of it is still being improved. Expect instances where the sensors and computers simply cannot deal with the complexity of the situation. Most of this technology is also driver "assist", not driver "replacement". It still needs a competent operator to work with it and can be let down by human or technological error.

The biggest critique of this new technology is that it can cause drivers to become less attentive and lazier. However, if used in conjunction with good driving habits, it could mean the difference between a few little electronic beeps and a major accident.

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