Your car knows more than you think. Like when you’re about to rear-end the vehicle in front of you. Or when you’re close to colliding with another car in the parking lot. Or when you’re too tired to drive.
Yes, too tired.
On a recent road trip, my Volvo XC-90 calmly informed me I was too fatigued to continue driving. It even suggested a hotel where I could stop for the night. How thoughtful.
The Volvo features are part of a suite of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) — and they have legions of fans. Zach Shefska, also an XC-90 driver, is among them. ADAS has saved his hide a time or two.
“There were times when I simply did not see another car while making a turn,” says Shefska, CEO of Your Auto Advocate, a customer advocacy site for car buyers and owners. “Even though I didn’t see a vehicle, the vehicle’s computer systems did. I was fortunate for that, since the car automatically braked and alerted me to the object in front of me.”
Experts credit ADAS-equipped vehicles with lowering accident rates and saving lives. Cars with ADAS showed a 27% reduction in bodily injury claim frequency and a 19% reduction in property damage frequency, according to research by LexisNexis Risk Solutions.
But have these safety features gone too far? Have they created nanny cars, where the freedom to drive as you please has been removed by a safety engineer and an overeager algorithm? Does your car know too much?
No doubt: ADAS cars are safer
ADAS includes a range of features such as adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection, collision warning, cross-traffic alert and road sign recognition. The vehicles can tell if you’ve left your lane or if you’re about to hit a pedestrian.
And let’s get one thing out of the way. ADAS cars are safer, no matter how you look at them. Data compiled from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and manufacturers by CCC Information Services suggests ADAS-equipped cars have anywhere from a 20% to 50% reduction in crashes. It projects a steep drop in accidents over the next 30 years thanks to ADAS.
“There is hope that advances in vehicle technology such as ADAS will, over time, lead to fewer accidents, and subsequently fewer people and vehicles to fix,” says Susanna Gotsch, director of industry analysis at CCC Information Services.
More safety features: ADAS cars are everywhere now
The global ADAS market size will increase from $27 billion this year to $83 billion by 2030, according to Research and Markets. That’s an annual growth rate of nearly 12%.
Your car already knows a lot. It might have safety features you’re not aware of, until you’re almost in an accident.
“We’ve seen that new vehicle safety technology isn’t just arriving on the car market, it’s being included as standard equipment on more and more models,” says Matt Smith, a deputy editor at CarGurus.com.
He says the push to bring advanced driver assistance systems to the masses, often at no extra cost, benefits drivers.
“For example, some technologies such as blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, and lane-keeping assist help drivers stay relaxed, fresh, and alert behind the wheel,” he says. “Many vehicle owners may be surprised to experience how a little help from the car can keep them feeling rested during long highway drives.”
Experts say this is just the beginning.
“There will be more safety features coming soon,” says Andy Hanvey, director of automotive marketing for OmniVision Technologies, a manufacturer of image sensors.
My nanny car surprised me, too
My nanny car was full of surprises. If you drive the hybrid XC-90, you’ll soon forget the last time you visited a gas station. The interior is thoughtfully designed. My 15-year-old son calls it the “business class” car because even the back seat has ample legroom and comfortable captain’s chairs.
But the similarities with premium air travel don’t end there. Just like the overly helpful flight attendants in the front of the plane (“Can I get you anything else?”, “May I help you with that?”), the car keeps a watchful eye on you.
My first surprise came when I tried to back out of a parking spot. A sensor alert buzzed and then the car hit the brakes for me. Like Shefska, I avoided a collision with another vehicle by a few inches. It turns out there’s a feature on the XC-90 called Cross Traffic Alert with autobrake. It’s a radar-assisted technology that prevents rear collisions. And it worked — although it also scared the living daylights out of me. My car had a mind of its own.
But the suggestion to pull over and sleep was my biggest surprise. Volvo refers to this as a feature designed to “improve driver alertness” — and it definitely got my attention. If your grip on the steering wheel relaxes too much, or if you wander out of your lane, that flight attendant pounces. First, there’s a chime. Then there’s a drowsiness alert message, along with a suggestion to pull over. It’s a specific suggestion, with the name of a hotel and directions, if you want them.
When I got the alert, I was driving down I-580 in Reno, Nev. It was 10 a.m., and I think I know why the system had been triggered. I’d reached for my coffee, and the car assumed I was about to pass out. I wasn’t.
Your car knows: Drivers give ADAS autos rave reviews
While some find ADAS features too intrusive, many feel better protected.
Mary Liberty-Traughber just bought at a new Ford Edge Titanium and says she’s impressed by all the safety features in the SUV. Her favorite so far is the car’s driver assistance system.
“I have the lane-centering feature and the feature that slows the car down when you approach another car from the rear,” says Liberty-Traughber, who works for a resort in Pendleton, Ore. “I’m amazed at all the different features I have now that I didn’t have only a few years ago. The technology has advanced immensely in this car.”
Karen Cummings, a retired communications consultant from Fryeburg, Maine, also loves the feature on her late model Hyundai Kona that alerts you when the car in front of you brakes hard.
“I tend to look around when driving,” she says. “I like to look at a house for sale by the side of the road. Or new construction. Or the beautiful fall foliage right now. Having the car brake and beep at me has saved me a few times.”
Sarah Ratliff credits her new Toyota RAV4 with saving her life. Last month, a pickup truck swerved into her lane.
“I don’t think the driver saw me in his blind spot,” says Ratliff, a writer who lives in Puerto Rico. “Before I could react, my car’s brakes engaged hard. I came to a grinding halt. Fortunately the car behind me was able to stop in time.”
Bottom line: It’s hard to find drivers who will badmouth any ADAS features in their car. Their cars know a lot about them, and they are comfortable with that.
The downside of ADAS? Too much tech in the car
But the concept of an all-knowing car has plenty of critics, too. One common complaint is the cost of servicing ADAS cars. The technology is expensive to fix, and sometimes only the manufacturer can repair it. That drives up ownership costs.
Experts also ask who really benefits from all the gadgets. George Hoffer, an emeritus professor of transportation economics at Virginia Commonwealth University, says it’s not car manufacturers, or the mechanics, nor even the drivers.
“The real winners from the adoption of new automotive safety appliances are auto insurers,” he says. “While personal injury claims are fewer in number than property damage claims, the former are much more expensive. By reducing the frequency and severity of personal injury claims, insurers are the real winners. This explains why the insurers have lobbied and promoted these appliances for 50 years.”
I covered the effects of ADAS on insurance in a recent FORBES story.
Another criticism: There’s just too much technology. That’s what M. Daniel Smith, president of Capstone Financial Group, says. His investment bank, which focuses on automotive and mobility technology, sees all the new safety features before they arrive in your car. He suggests that we’re on the verge of being overloaded by tech.
“The problem with much of the technology is not so much whether it works or not, but whether the consumer is comfortable with it and even shuts it off before they have time to really test it,” he explains.
Smith thinks some ADAS technologies are keepers. Lane change warning and adaptive cruise control will become as standard as seat belts.
Things could get even more interesting
Down the road, things could get even more interesting. We’ve already had the summer of the EV. Here comes the tech.
“Eye monitoring is very popular and will probably be perfected within the next year or so,” he adds.
One promising company he’s working with monitors the driver’s temperature and brain waves. Another has developed gesture algorithms so the driver doesn’t have to touch any of the car’s knobs, but just sort of waves at them.
Experts like Glen De Vos refer to these features as Level 2+ functionality. Technology such as traffic jam assist and automated lane change could allow you to take your hands off the wheel in certain circumstances — safely.
But the systems also monitor your driving habits in a way that might also make you a little uncomfortable. Do you really want your car to see everything and to report it to your manufacturer, an insurance company or law enforcement?
“For example, if the platform sensing driver state knows you are looking at the radio while the exterior radars see a car cut into your lane, the active safety system can immediately issue a warning and tell you where to look,” says De Vos, a senior vice president at Aptiv, a technology company.
That’s the future of your car. It sees everything.
Making peace with my nanny car
I figured out how to stop the false alarms on my XC-90. If I held the steering wheel firmly and stayed in my lane, I would avoid the suggestions to pull over and take a nap.
That’s exactly what I did for the rest of my road trip. I clutched the steering wheel firmly and remained in my lane. Maybe that’s exactly what the nanny wanted.
What if this wasn’t a misguided algorithm added to the car by a well-intentioned Volvo engineer? What if it was a deliberate effort to improve the way people drive? In the past, I may have drifted into another lane without so much as a warning from the car or my passengers.
But that’s not good driving. Staying in my lane and keeping both hands on the wheel is.
And that’s how I made peace with my nanny car. The car knows when I’m being a bad driver and is trying to fix it.
She can be a little overbearing, but she means well.