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Guide to new car technology

Cars are increasingly coming with fancy new systems that make driving safer. Learn what all those three-letter acronyms stand for and whether they’re worth having.

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Car manufacturers constantly develop new systems and devices that make driving safer and more conformable. New cars are increasingly being fitted with safety assist technology to help avoid collisions and, in some cases, to enable them to partly or wholly drive autonomously.

Many of the systems use the same components that will one day provide the foundation for driverless cars.

  • While innovative new technology is great, it should never be used to compensate for a tired, distracted or lazy driver.

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

Autonomous emergency braking (AEB)

emergency brake assist technologyAutonomous emergency braking, quickly becoming a commonplace inclusion, 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 front and to the sides of the vehicle.

The software constantly monitors this information and uses it to alert 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 slow or stop the vehicle.

  • Pros: Has the potential to prevent collisions or mitigate the severity of a crash. A 2015 study by Euro NCAP and ANCAP found it reduced rear-end vehicle crashes by up to 38%
  • Cons: It can be affected by weather conditions (i.e. fog, wet roads, sun glare or dirt on camera lens) and does not always reliably pick up cyclists. AEB is not infallible. Several recalls issued by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission have centred on cars, SUVs and even trucks with AEB that activates incorrectly or with no reason

Adaptive cruise control (ACC)

adaptive cruise technologyAdaptive cruise 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, maintaining 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 people who do a lot of freeway driving, makes highway driving less stressful, can improve fuel efficiency, can be used around town (if equipped with "stop and go") and helps prevent you from getting speeding tickets
  • Cons: The driver needs to be aware of how the car will react in different situations; ACC can lull people into paying less attention, the system could malfunction, sensors need to be clear of debris, some systems deactivate below a certain speed and studies suggest it may cause drivers to be more susceptible to drowsiness

Adaptive headlights

adaptive headlight technology
Your eyes follow the road but traditional headlights don't. 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 dazzle
  • Cons: Nil (other than the cost if you need to repair it)

High beam assist

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

  • Pros: Prevents other drivers from struggling to drive at night
  • Cons: The technology is still prone to error and doesn't necessarily take into consideration your personal driving preferences. It might be an optional extra, costing you more when ordering a new car

Blind-spot detection/monitoring

blind spot assistHaving 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: Great safety feature that prevents one of the more common forms of driver error
  • Cons: Nil

Emergency assist

car accident assistanceEmergency 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 post-crash
  • Cons: Could contact emergency services unnecessarily in a minor incident. May not have mobile phone signal

Lane departure warning

lane detector technologyThis 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: Good for those who frequently do long drives, helps prevent you from 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

traffic in rear view mirrorThese are sensors on the back of the vehicle that help 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
  • Cons: Like all of these technologies, it shouldn't replace driver awareness

Parking assist

parking assist technologyIf 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: Good for smaller people who can't easily see around the vehicle
  • Cons: It can get baffled. It's possibly easier to just park yourself

360-degree imaging

vehicle 360 degree imagingThis 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 the principle of 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: Often 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. The feature has many different labels, depending on which car brand you're buying. By judging a driver's steering input, the vehicle's positioning in the lane and even your posture/eyes/head direction, the control module can determine 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: Your car can prompt you to take a break if you're displaying signs of drowsiness, helping to reduce the likelihood of you having a crash
  • Cons: Could give drivers a false sense of security

Speed alert/intelligence speed assist

Speeding results in a driver having less time to react leading up to or during an accident. Higher-speed incidents are typically more severe and carry a higher chance of injury. Travelling too fast can also quite correctly land you with fines and demerits. A car with speed alert will prompt you if you're over the limit and some vehicles even let you set your own upper boundary.

  • Pros: Speed alerts reduce the chance of accidentally going too fast, such as if you're tired or unfamiliar with the area
  • Cons: Drivers could become too reliant on it

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, seat positions might be altered for optimal airbag deployment and some vehicles even close the windows or sunroof. When combined with AEB, pre-collision assist can mitigate or avoid an incident altogether. Brake response may be tweaked to provide maximum force.

  • Pros: If you're unfortunate enough to be in a developing car crash, the system could lessen or potentially circumvent the collision altogether
  • Cons: Some systems are not autonomous; they require the driver to be in the process of responding to an emergency. Pre-crash is most effective for 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/passing sign
  • Cons: A sign could be missing, obscured or defaced

Like all new technology, new car technology 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.

Pictures: Shutterstock

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