“What’s That Thing For?”: Deciphering the Safety Features of Modern Vehicles

Previous generations often reminisce about a time when seatbelts were optional and automobiles were so big that most accidents did more damage to the car than the occupants. Fender-benders could be repaired with several-foot-long sheets of metal and some Bondo. However, even with vehicles returning to larger dimensions these days, safety has come a long way from bench seats and waist-only seatbelts.

Evidence of the movement towards safer roads starts with the technology currently available. There is a goal to lower the number of fatalities stemming from car accidents, which has spurred the development of many new safety systems. More and more of them now come standard. With this array of new technology comes confusing acronyms and fancy technical terms. Do you know which safety systems your vehicle is equipped with? Better yet, do you know how they work?

In this article, we’ll dispel much of the confusion around the safety technology in today’s automobiles. Whatever it’s known as per individual manufacturers, the basis of the technology stays nearly the same. It’s just a matter of deciphering the engineering jargon. By the end of this article, you’ll know more about what safety technology is out there, and even be able to recognize — and most importantly, properly respond to — the technology built into your own vehicle.

First, let’s begin by going backwards.

The Rear View/Back-up Camera

Though efforts to make back-up cameras mandatory in new vehicles began back in 2008, it was only in 2014 that the U.S. Department of Transportation issued regulations that would require automakers to equip vehicles built after May 1, 2018 with this particular safety technology. Nowadays, rear view cameras can be found as an option on most anything.

Forbes nails it on the head: back-up cameras are there “firstly to give the driver a clear view of what’s behind the vehicle when reversing and, secondly, to protect children and animals from being accidentally hit or run over.” Side and rearview mirrors are meant to shed as much light as possible on what is going on behind the vehicle, but being able to see a direct and clear picture certainly makes a different in almost every case.

From the pedestrian side of that potential danger, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published a “final rule establishing minimum sound-level requirements for low-speed operation of hybrid and electric vehicles.” Basically, hybrid and electric cars can operate so quietly that people (especially children) might not even be aware that they are in operation. Any company that manufactures “green” cars (basically all of them, by now) have until September 2020 to ensure their cars can be heard properly.

Now, while most of the technology we’ll be discussing isn’t mandated (yet), it is clear the ultimate goal is a self-driving automobile. We might even consider the available technology as the first steps toward this innovation. Most of these features are still optional upgrades (or available on higher level trim models). But just like the three-point seatbelt, air bags, and ABS braking were once optional on cars, all of these safety features will likely become standard in the near-future.

Safety Technology on the Market Today

Below is a list of the modern safety features typically found on any vehicle made in the last few years. We will explain the term and give a brief description of what the feature does. Not every feature is available on every new vehicle, so it’s always good to double check what your potential new car does (or doesn’t) come equipped with.

Adaptive Cruise Control: Regular cruise control allows the driver to maintain a constant speed without having to depress the gas pedal and is best for long, straight roads with little to no traffic. With Adaptive Cruise Control, the vehicle can slow down and accelerate with traffic. The idea is to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you.

Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB): Human reaction time isn’t always the greatest. AEB allows the car to automatically apply the brakes when it senses an imminent collision. Great for when someone cuts you off, blows through a stop sign, or a child chases a runaway ball out into the street.

Rear AEB: Much like AEB, Rear AEB allows the car to apply the brakes when reversing, to avoid collisions and injuries. Often used in conjunction with rear cameras or the recently popular 360-degree sky view camera systems.

Lane Departure Warning/Lane Keep Assist: Cameras on vehicles equipped with Lane Departure Warning and/or Lane Keep Assist orient the vehicle in the lane and sound alarms or even vibrate the driver’s seat when drifting out of the lane. Advanced versions of this safety tech will even automatically provide gentle steering corrections to keep your vehicle in its own lane.

Blind Spot Warning/Detection: Driven by a new car lately and seen a small light appear on the side mirror when you pass it? This is part of the blind spot warning/detection system, which lights up to notify the driver that an object/vehicle is in their blind spot.

Forward Collision Warning: Aggressive drivers who follow too close will invoke the wrath of the Forward Collision Warning system and receive quite a scolding. The system can detect the risk of a crash before a human can, and give a driver precious extra time to react. This is often combined with AEB to ensure the car stops safely, regardless of the driver’s actions.

Rear Cross-Traffic Warning/Alert: When using the rearview camera, drivers will be notified if there is an object directly in the path of the rear-ward moving vehicle. Whether it’s another car speeding by as you back out of a parking spot, or a teenager on a bike zipping down the sidewalk, this tech will warn you it’s coming. When combined with Rear AEB, the vehicle might automatically apply the brakes too.

While these systems may seem pretty safe, there are more in the works. Let’s take a closer look at what’s coming up next in the safety world.

The Future of Automotive Safety

Almost every major car manufacture is now investing in “autonomous driving technology.” It seems the world is spinning towards a vehicle that will eventually drive itself. Proof of this is in the recent agreement between the NHTSA, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and 20 different automotive manufacturers to standardize Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) “on all cars and light trucks by 2022.” According to the IIHS, those making the commitment are “Audi, BMW, FCA US LLC, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia, Maserati, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi Motors, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Tesla Motors Inc., Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo Car USA.”

This aligns with the NHTSA’s vision of a safer driving experience. In a report generated on the “Five Eras of Safety,” the NHTSA denoted the years from 2016 to 2025 as characterized by “Partially Automated Safety Features.” These include many of the features we listed above, among others only offered on select, higher-priced models. From 2025 onwards, the NHTSA expects to see “Fully Automated Safety Features,” listing “Highway autopilot” as one of the representative technologies.

Self-driving cars are a hot topic these days, and for good reason. In the NHTSA’s 2020 report, experts stated: “A fundamental change in the public’s view of safety has occurred over the last decade. Many customers are not only willing to pay extra for safety features, they are now selecting vehicles based on their content of key safety items. This trend is expected to continue and to intensify in the years ahead.” Creature comforts and ahead-of-the-curve gadgets might be bragging rights around the lunchroom table, but when it comes down to it, the advanced safety features built into your vehicle are the ones we’re sure you’ll be most thankful for.

What do you think the future holds for automotive safety?

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