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Recently, I borrowed a friend's 25-year-old BMW for a long trip. Every time I put it in reverse, I missed not having a rear backup camera.
And that wasn't all. I also wished I had adaptive cruise control to make long stretches of open road more relaxing and blind-spot warning to help me change lanes safely on busy highways.
But not everyone agrees. I've had friends and other drivers tell me they just turn these features off to avoid annoying beeps and flashing lights.
"All of these warnings are too much for people because there are a lot of false positives," says Kathleen Rizk, senior director of user experience benchmarking and technology for J.D. Power, a consumer research company. But she adds, "Overall these are fantastic features that can provide safety, but people need to learn to use them."
Car owners have varying levels of trust in these automatic driving features, according to a 2021 study done with MIT's Advanced Vehicle Technology Consortium and Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, or PAVE. Low-speed features, such as rear backup cameras, were popular, Rizk says. Others, which were activated only at higher speeds, were less understood and less trusted.
That may be because these features go by different names depending on the manufacturer, and their alerts can be confusing, even overwhelming, if you don’t know what they mean.
Here's why those beeps can be helpful.
1. Help you back up safely
With so many high-clearance SUVs and trucks on the road, a rear backup camera is essential to make sure there are no obstacles out of sight below the rear tailgate. Tragically, it could even be a child playing in your driveway. Rear backup cameras have been required on all new cars in the U.S. since 2018.
But there are even more features that help you back up safely:
Cross-traffic alert. This is one of Rizk's favorites, and it's popular with most drivers who have it. If you back out of a parking spot, radar sensors warn you if a vehicle is barreling toward you. It beeps and sometimes even indicates the direction of the approaching vehicle on your vehicle's monitor. Cross-traffic alert may also warn you of pedestrians and bicyclists, depending on your vehicle.
360-degree camera. Using multiple cameras, this feature shows you a top-down view of your car and its surroundings. It's great for parallel parking and maneuvering in a tight garage.
Rizk says that camera-based features are popular and many new uses are being developed, such as built-in cameras to record driving or monitor your car's security while you're away.
2. Help you change lanes safely
Radar sensors monitor the traffic in your blind spot and warn you when a vehicle is there. This is often done with a warning light on your side mirrors. If you put on your turn signal and a car is lurking in your blind spot, you'll get an audible beep.
This feature isn't meant to take the place of actually looking to see if the lane is open, Rizk adds. It's a support system to provide an additional alert to avoid missing smaller vehicles or those coming from an adjacent lane.
Here are two other similar features:
Lane keeping assist/warning. If you stray toward the road's line striping, this feature actually nudges the steering wheel to center the vehicle in the lane. In other cases, a beep will alert you to avoid wandering out of your lane. The Advanced Vehicle Technology Consortium study found that 70% of respondents didn’t realize that these systems become active only at speeds above 30-45 mph.
Video rearview mirror. A rear-facing camera shows you the road behind you in your rearview mirror. This is helpful when your car is so fully loaded that the view out the back window is blocked.
3. Help you avoid rear-end accidents
When traffic unexpectedly stops, an automatic emergency braking system can keep you from rear-ending the car in front of you.
Radar sensors constantly monitor the amount of room ahead of you. If that distance suddenly decreases and you don't hit the brakes, it first gives a warning. Then, some systems will actually apply the brakes.
This is an extremely valuable feature, but it can confuse drivers by giving the false positives that Rizk mentioned earlier. And here's another feature that works in tandem with emergency braking systems:
Adaptive cruise control. This is similar to cruise control, but it keeps a set distance between you and the car in front. So if that car slows or even stops, your car will adjust its speed accordingly. This feature is particularly helpful in cutting driver fatigue on long trips.
How to learn what your car is telling you
The Advanced Vehicle Technology Consortium study found that a slim majority of car owners (51%) are interested in learning more about automatic driving features. However, only 29% of respondents actively sought out such information.
"It's definitely worth the time to learn these systems," Rizk says.
Here are a few ways to learn about the features in your car:
Check your window sticker to verify which features are on your car.
Visit the manufacturer's website for videos explaining how the system works.
Read either the printed manual that came with the car or an online version, which might be easier to search.
In a safe setting, experiment with the different features until you understand how they work.
Use YouTube as a resource. Car enthusiasts will post videos explaining how certain features work.