I started reviewing cars for a living about 15 years ago. Back then, features like radar cruise, collision alert, lane departure warning systems and blind-spot monitoring were reserved mainly for big-dollar luxury flagship sedans. Little machinery available on this side of $75,000, back then, offered any of the above.
As things do, this big-dollar tech has now trickled down into much more affordable rides. And today, more automakers are making features like the above available, or even standard. Toyota is, arguably, leading the charge: Virtually all of their models include a full array of these outward-looking hazard detection systems as standard. A few months back, I was in new Corolla Hatchback, priced in the low-mid twenties, with all of the above, and more.
Many other examples exist. And chances are, if you’re about to buy a new (or newer used) vehicle, it’s going to have one or more features like these on board.
Safety used to be all about stability control and ABS and airbags and structural crumple zones: stuff that all tried to keep you out of an accident, and to protect your vehicle’s human occupants if one was inevitable.
Today, that’s still the case, though the advanced new breed of safety systems means your vehicle can now peer into the motoring world around it, to look for certain dangerous situations, and warn you of them, ideally with plenty of notice to spare.
Other vehicles can even take corrective action automatically, applying steering or braking on their own, to keep you out of certain types of accidents. Many models from Mazda, Volvo, BMW, Ford and others can even detect pedestrians and cyclists at risk of entering your vehicle’s path, and auto-brake to avoid a collision, even if you don’t.
I get stacks of reader correspondence about these features. Mostly, this correspondence suggests they’re largely misunderstood, both in execution and purpose. Below are some general notes and tips to help prepare you for ownership of your very first vehicle with advanced safety features.
Cameras and sensors
Advanced safety systems generally rely on cameras or radar sensors (or both) to collect information about the world around. Cameras look for lane markings on the road, so that you can be alerted if you’re accidentally leaving your lane with no signal.
Radar transmitters can track the distance to the next vehicle up the road, and back off the cruise control speed automatically, or warn you if you’re closing in too quickly on another car, and are therefore at an elevated collision risk. Other sensors can alert you if there’s a vehicle in your blind spot, if you’re about to run over a pedestrian, or even self-steer your vehicle automatically, in certain situations.
The gist? Camera and radar information are fed into a computer for analysis. If required, the system issues a warning to the driver, or may take some autonomous corrective action. Some vehicles can warn you of an issue, and others can warn you of an issue, and then take automatic steps to help you avoid it, if you don’t respond.
One recent Hyundai braked automatically for me as a transport truck swerved suddenly into my lane, just ahead. I saw it happen, but (whether tired or lost in my thoughts for a moment), I failed to brake immediately.
In another instance, during heavy fog on the highway, a Chevrolet beeped loudly and flashed a red light on the dashboard to grab my attention. I was focused on a car I thought would pull in front of me from a side street, and not on a transport truck that was braking suddenly up the road. This alert likely prevented an accident, since it gave me several additional seconds to brake.
Finally, during a lane change, a recent BMW prevented me from side-swiping another car. My eyeballs had confirmed that the way was clear, but when I signalled to move over a second later, a nearby car had made a rapid and un-signalled swerve into my blind spot. The BMW flashed a warning light and stiffened the steering in the left direction, to encourage me not to steer that way.
Sometimes humans have lapses at the wheel. It can happen to anyone.
They’re not perfect
I’ve never driven a vehicle with any of these advanced safety features that worked perfectly, 100 per cent of the time. Not one. In general, they mostly work well, most of the time, though they can miss things, issue false alarms, or even apply a slight but startling corrective steering input for no apparent reason. These steering inputs are very weak, and easily overridden, provided you’re alert and have both hands on the wheel.
Ultimately, these safety systems are there to work with, and not in place of, you attentive, safe driving. Drivers who use these systems as a means of paying less attention to the road will encounter problems. This is vitally important to understand.
Winter wreaks havoc with most of these safety features. Cameras can’t see road markings when the road is covered in snow and salt, and grille-mounted radar transmitters can’t penetrate snow and ice that builds up on vehicles as they travel in the snow. For this reason, winter conditions often knock the safety features off line until the driver clears the camera(s) and/or radar transmitters off. Translation? They work in some situations, and not others. Also, they’re more likely to work if you keep your vehicle and windshield clear of snow and ice, which you should be doing anyways.
When an advanced safety feature goes off line, the vehicle alerts the driver with a warning message and/or warning light in the instruments. This should be no cause for alarm, since 100 per cent of the responsibility of safe driving is with the driver, not the gadgets.
You’re the boss
Whether caused by weather, nearby infrastructure or anything else, advanced safety features can sometimes act up, behave inconsistently, or otherwise cause some degree of frustration. If this occurs, the solution is simple: turn the offending system(s) off.
In no instance have I encountered a vehicle where this wasn’t possible with a simple button press. Remember: as the operator of a motor vehicle, it’s your responsibility to know the limitations of these systems, how to use them, and how to disable them, if you need to.
Does turning an advanced safety system off make driving more dangerous? Assuming that you’re being a safe and responsible and attentive driver, I’d argue that the answer is no. Again, these features could save your life, but ultimately, safety is 100 per cent the responsibility of your grey matter, not your microchips. Put another way, a safe driver is a much safer driver than the computer systems in their car.
I’ll note here that autonomous inputs to steering or braking (if applicable) are, by design, very easily overridden. At no point will your vehicle ever ‘steer itself off the road’ or ‘stop you dead in the roadway’ when it shouldn’t, provided you’re paying attention, and are familiar with how the systems work, which you hopefully are.
If your vehicle exhibits an unwanted steering input, just holding the steering straight will immediately cancel it. If the vehicle applies unwanted braking, simply holding your foot in place on the throttle will cancel it. At no point, during any of the dozens of false alarm events I’ve experienced at the wheel, was I ever at any risk of the vehicle taking control away from me.
To sum things up, first and foremost, understand that advanced safety features are, in no way, a replacement for safe and attentive driving. Second, understand that the way these systems work means they’re limited; some only work above or below a certain speed. Others can get taken out by a little of snow. Others may issue false alarms, or even apply unwanted steering or braking in certain situations (however rare).
End of the day, these features are a good thing since they can save lives and prevent accidents, provided drivers understand what they do, what they don’t do, how they work, and where they’re limited. If you’ll read only one chapter of your owner’s manual, it should be the one on these safety features. Drive safe.