BUYER’S GUIDE: Autonomous Car Technology Explained

Posted by

Autonomous Car

The days of drivers being solely in control of their cars are fading fast. There are fully-autonomous cars in testing and many new cars come with some kind of autonomous technology as standard features. Only if you opt for the most inexpensive, stripped-down version of a given car can you get one that doesn’t have any modern technology.

That doesn’t mean we are at the point where we simply turn on our cars and tell them where to take us while we sit back and take a nap. That might happen someday, but for now, we’re at an in-between place that’s a little confusing.

Here are the most common autonomous car technologies in today’s cars and how they work to keep you and your family safer on the road.

Autonomous Emergency Braking

Humans aren’t perfect, which is why we often miss problems and don’t hit the brakes fast enough to avoid an accident. Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) is designed to stop a car and avoid an accident.

These systems use sensors to determine how close a car is to other vehicles or obstacles in the road. If it’s determined that you’re closing the distance too quickly and are likely to crash, then several things happen in rapid succession.

Often there’s some kind of warning in the form of tones or lights to get the driver’s attention to stop or slow the car as a first step. If the driver doesn’t hit the brakes, then cars with AEB can bring themselves to a complete stop.

Depending on how fast you’re driving, this can either prevent an accident entirely or at least slow you down so the collision happens at a slower and less damaging speed. This particular technology has been found so effective in preventing crashes that it is in the process of becoming standard equipment.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety worked with automakers to voluntarily make this standard on all cars. This was in response to reports showing these types of systems reduce rear-end collisions by as much as 40 percent.

Right now, they aren’t standard unless you’re looking at higher trims or more expensive vehicles. Although it is an added cost, AEB has proved itself an effective safety feature and is worth the expense if it fits your budget.

Looking for a new or used car? Check out BestRide’s listing search here.

Adaptive Cruise Control

Cruise control has been around for awhile and it’s easy to use. Simply set a speed and your car will maintain that speed until you tell it otherwise, usually by tapping the brakes.

Adaptive cruise control takes it one step further by adjusting your speed to match the traffic ahead.

If you set your speed, and suddenly traffic slows, then traditional cruise control requires braking to disengage and avoid rear-ending another car. Adaptive cruise control automatically slows down your car and then brings it back up to speed when traffic gets moving.

Depending on the system, these cars can bring you to a complete stop and then back up to highway speeds. You can even set the gap between your car and the car in front to be shorter or longer depending on what makes you comfortable.

The chances of you rear-ending a car due to lack of attention while cruise control is set are much less when the car can automatically slow down. Expect to see adaptive cruise control slowly replace the traditional version of this technology as the costs come down.


Lane Keep Assist

This feature is showing up in many cars and it’s one that, despite its safety benefits, people tend to dislike. Here’s how it works.

Lane keep assist works in conjunction with lane departure warnings to keep you from accidentally drifting out of your lane. It starts with a warning that comes in various forms. Sometimes it’s a light on the instrument cluster. Sometimes it’s a tone. Sometimes it’s a vibration in the steering wheel. No matter the warning, the purpose is to get your attention and let you know you’re not in your lane.

Some systems stop there and offer only a warning, but those with an assistive component will gently steer you back in the right direction. You can feel the wheel nudge the car the way the system wants you to go and it’s a little disconcerting.

Of all the autonomous car technologies coming in today’s cars, this is the one that consumers roundly dislike.

It’s often too sensitive and drivers feel like they’re constantly being barraged with warnings for no reason. Likewise, the little nudge to keep in your lane can be jarring, especially if the system misreads the lanes and tries to send you out of your lane rather than keeping you on track.

Due to those frustrations, many people end up turning lane keep assist off altogether. If you’re considering this feature on your next car, try and test drive a model equipped with the technology so you can experience how it works, especially if you’re paying extra for a package.

Looking for a new or used car? Check out BestRide’s listing search here.

Autonomous driving


Anyone who has ever struggled to parallel park a car will love this particular technology. Instead of trying to figure out exactly where to start so you back into a parallel spot on the first try, self-parking technology pretty much does it all.

Your main job is to watch what’s happening and adjust the speed of the process by managing the brakes. Left to its own devices, a car that is self-parking will turn the wheel and guide itself slowly into place.

You will also be told when to shift the car from forward to reverse and can stop the process at any time if you feel like the system is cutting it too close. The car may park itself, but ultimately you’re in control.

These systems offer both parallel and perpendicular parking options. They’ll also find a spot if you’re driving through a lot and aren’t quite sure where your car will easily fit. As good as this sounds, it does have its drawbacks.

Slow and steady is the rule, which doesn’t work out well if you’re on a crowded downtown street trying to park while a line of cars waits to get around you and continue on their way. The sensors also have trouble seeing in bad weather, so you may find the system inoperable if during snowy conditions.

Lastly, these systems are not all created equal. Take a test drive and experiment with self-parking features. Not only is it helpful to have someone there to explain how it works the first time around, you’ll be able to see how well the car parks. Is it the right distance from the curb? Can you open your door and get out or are you wedged in? Test this before you buy.

Auto Pilot

The ultimate in autonomous car technology is autopilot, but it’s not quite there yet even though you’ll find this feature on some cars.

Autopilot varies from car to car and is still a very new technology. A recent fatal crash in a Tesla vehicle, which was operating under AutoPilot, has thrown the feature’s safety into question. Depending on the manufacturer, recommendations vary about keeping your hands on the wheel, which can be confusing for drivers.

One thing that does not vary is your responsibility. No matter the technology, at this point you are still very much responsible for your car. Think of today’s autonomous technology as baby steps. It’s the beginning of driverless cars, not the end. You need to remember that you’re the one ultimately responsible for driving safely at all times.

Looking for a new or used car? Check out BestRide’s listing search here.