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Buyers want new-car safety features, don’t understand them

Adaptive cruise control, collision warning among most misunderstood systems

Published: August 16, 2015, 5:00 AM
Updated: August 19, 2015, 1:11 PM

Volvo Adaptive Cruise Control Illustration

A recent study is showing that although car buyers want more safety features in their vehicles, they don’t really understand how they work.

The study from the University of Iowa Transportation and Vehicle Safety Research Division examined 2,015 drivers’ knowledge of nine vehicle safety systems and found respondents were aware of at least one of the technologies but unsure of what any of them really do.

“As technologies like rear-view cameras and lane departure warning systems advance and become more prevalent in the cars we’re driving, there is a tremendous need to improve consumer understanding of these critical safety features,” concluded Daniel McGehee, director of the Transportation and Vehicle Safety Research Division at the UI Public Policy Center.

The features included in the study were back-up cameras, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, forward collision warning, rear cross-traffic alert, traction control, automatic emergency braking and anti-lock braking.

Among the most misunderstood features were adaptive cruise control (about which 65.2% of respondents reported uncertainty), collision warning (41.7%), lane departure warnings (35.6%) and blind-spot monitoring (32.2%). However, respondents also reported uncertainty about some features that have been standard on vehicles for a number of years, such as tire pressure monitoring (45.2%) and antilock brakes (25.5%).

 “The level of confusion about features that have been standard in American cars for quite a while was really surprising,” said McGehee. “The little details about how some of these systems work are really important when we’re talking about safety. We need to do a better job of making sure consumers are comfortable with them.”

That conclusion is based on responses from 40% of those surveyed who reported their vehicles behave in unexpected ways.

Among the best understood features were the rearview camera (with only 11% reporting uncertainty about what it does), conventional cruise control (14.2%) and back-up warnings (19.9%).

In relation to what type of technologies they were most comfortable with, 37.4% of respondents said they were comfortable with technologies that alert the driver with sounds, while 25.1% reported being uncomfortable with technologies that automatically drive a vehicle. They were almost equally split, though, with braking or steering technologies that help avoid crashes (12.6% were comfortable; 13.8% were uncomfortable).

To address a need in consumer education, the university recently launched MyCarDoesWhat.org in partnership with the U.S.’s National Safety Council. The site contains instructional videos and other information about new vehicle safety technologies and how they work. It is a part of a larger national education campaign set to launch in fall 2015. It will include research initiatives, advertising, social media reach, mobile applications and even an interactive game.