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A Crash Course: What You Need to Know About New Automated Safety Systems

New safety features that are built into vehicles are designed to help drivers to avoid accidents. The same technologies someday might enable vehicles to drive themselves—just don’t expect it anytime soon.

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At age 73, automobile dealer Earl Stewart admits that he can’t turn his neck as well as he used to and that he relies on his vehicle’s backup camera and proximity detector to make sure that he doesn’t hit anything. So, after he kissed his wife goodbye one morning and backed his 2013 Lexus LS 460 L out of his garage, Stewart heard the beeping of those vehicle safety systems, which made him hit the brakes. His wife had walked behind his vehicle, and he narrowly avoided hitting her.

“It was a scary thing,” he says.

Backup cameras, blind-spot warnings and other advanced safety features have been around for years in the United States and now exist in more vehicles at a wider price range than ever before. For example, you can get Active Park Assist and a rearview camera on a family car, such as a 2014 Ford Focus Titanium ($23,960), says David Alexander, who is an analyst for Navigant Research. Two years ago, you would’ve found those features more typically on a luxury car, such as a BMW 7 Series ($74,000).

Vehicle manufacturers and industry analysts say these safety features, which are known as advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), dramatically reduce accidents and traffic congestion. Basic features, which start at $395, use hardware, such as cameras and radar, combined with computer software to provide information or warnings that help to make driving safer. More-advanced feature packages, which typically start at about $995, can take limited control of your vehicle to help you to avoid or at least minimize the effect of an accident. (See “Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems.”)

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle accidents sent at least 2.6 million people to the emergency room in 2011 (the most recent data available). A 2011 study by AAA found that vehicle accidents cost consumers $299.5 billion per year. Human error is the main cause of accidents, regardless of whether it’s the result of simple mistakes, distracted driving, drowsiness, health issues or intoxication.

Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems

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Automakers and insurance companies say they want those numbers to go down, and ADAS features are expected to help to make that happen. Nevertheless, obstacles remain for consumers when it comes to the price of these systems and the effects that they have on automobile insurance.

STEADY EVOLUTION. As more safety features emerged in vehicles, consumers increased their calls for more widespread use. A December 2013 international survey of consumers who were 18 and older by the consultancy Accenture found that 85 percent of respondents want automatic braking systems that would stop their vehicle during an emergency, and 72 percent want vehicles that have collision-warning systems that help drivers to avoid accidents. A survey of drivers who are over the age of 50 by insurance company The Hartford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that respondents ranked blind-spot detection, collision-avoidance systems, emergency response systems, lane-departure warnings and reverse monitoring systems as five of the most desired features that are in new vehicles.

Automakers continue to bring new ADAS features to market. Infiniti introduced a feature in the 2014 Q50 that’s called direct adaptive steering, which removes the long-standing mechanical link between the steering column and the front wheels. The system instead uses sensors to register how the driver turns the steering wheel and then communicates that to the wheels.

Infiniti says direct adaptive steering creates a smoother driving experience, because the driver no longer feels road bumps or vibrations through the tires to the steering wheel. The company says this can reduce fatigue. However, veteran automotive writer Dan Carney, who is one of the six experts whom Consumers Digest uses to produce our automotive Best Buy recommendations, says the system feels “isolated and unnatural.” Susan Carpenter, who is an automotive critic for Orange County Register and another of the six experts whom Consumers Digest taps for our automotive Best Buy reviews, says you might have to drive hundreds of miles to experience the anti-fatigue benefit. The six Q50 models that include this feature range from $37,050 to $45,350.

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