AAA Highlights New Vehicle Technology Trends In 2012

March 1, 2012

As the array of new vehicle technologies continues to increase, so, too does the trend toward consumer acceptance. That’s the gist of what AAA has found in its analysis of new vehicle technology trends in 2012.

Considering that anti-lock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC), at one time considered pioneering innovations, are now standard or required features on new vehicles, it stands to reason that as more consumers opt for the newest technologies, the more likely the price will come down and/or they’ll be packaged with other consumer-requested features.

In addition, many of the newer technologies that were previously only available in luxury or higher-priced vehicles are now trickling down into mainstream, affordable family vehicles. Such is the case with many of the new vehicle technologies the AAA identified.

How the AAA identifies a new vehicle technology trend

Family Car Guide wanted to know how the AAA goes about identifying which of the new vehicle technologies qualify and how they identify them as a trend. Ginnie Pritchett, AAA spokesperson, tells us that the organization has conducted reviews of new cars for many years. Part of the AAA review process is to document various features, or lack thereof, that the organization believes are relevant to both new and used car buyers.

In preparing this year’s new technology trend release, the AAA took into account technologies that are becoming more available in 2011 and some 2012 vehicles.

Who selects the top technologies? That is done by a small group of individuals who have had extended drive time in the majority of new cars for each model year. Of course, the list of technologies is not exhaustive but it does reflect the most common or important technologies based on the reviewers’ experience and the qualitative review data.

The overarching goal is to identify more widely available new technologies. Technology that increases the safety of vehicle occupants is very important to AAA, and is well represented in this year’s list.

Volvo driver alert control

Volvo driver alert control

Which technologies made the list?

The AAA identifies eight new vehicle technologies in this year’s list, although we could arguably say that one is more material-related than technology.

  • Brake assist – This system applies full braking power after the system detects the driver has just instituted a full emergency stop. It is standard on a number of 2012 vehicles.
  • Stop-start – As automakers seek to improve fuel economy, expect to see more of this new vehicle technology in years to come. What it does is automatically shut down the engine when the driver stops, say for a red light. It resumes automatically as soon as the driver steps on the accelerator. Originally available only in hybrid vehicles, stop-start technology may soon trickle down into more non-hybrid models. The 2012 Kia Rio5, for example, is the first non-hybrid car sold in America with start-stop technology.
  • Active cruise control – Here’s another new vehicle technology that used to be confined to luxury vehicles but is now widely available as an option. Also called adaptive cruise control, active cruise control uses radar or laser to maintain a set distance from the vehicle ahead, slowing the vehicle when slower traffic is detected ahead. Newer systems can apply the brakes to maintain safe following distance, when needed.   
  • Lane departure warning systems – Also called LDW, this new vehicle technology uses cameras to sense lane markings on the pavement and issues an audible alert or vibrations in the steering wheel to let drivers know they’ve crossed over lane markings without signaling. LDW is widely available today, and not just on luxury models. As we reported last fall, the 2012 Ford Explorer offers this safety technology, and it will also be available on the 2013 Ford Fusion.
  • Blind spot warning systems - Using radar or camera-based systems to detect and warn a driver that there’s another vehicle adjacent or out of the field of view used to be available only on certain luxury vehicles. Blind spot warning systems are now standard in some family vehicles, such as several Mazda models, and are offered in the all-new 2013 Ford Fusion mid-size sedan.
  • Parking proximity warning systems and backup cameras – The recent delay by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in ruling mandated rearview cameras notwithstanding, systems that help warn the driver of people, animals or objects in the vehicle’s “blind zones” are becoming more widely available. The 2012 Honda CR-V crossover (reviewed here by TheCarConnection) has a multi-angle rearview camera with guidelines standard on all models. Note that the lead photo in this article shows the ParkView backup camera system n the 2012 Dodge Durango.
  • Driver alert warning system – Originally on luxury models such as those from Mercedes-Benz, driver alert warning systems detect drowsiness or inattention from the driver and issue various kinds of alert warnings. In the 2013 Ford Fusion, the Lane Keeping System has three elements: one to alert the drowsy or inattentive driver, one that vibrates the steering wheel if the driver drifts too close to lane markings, and a third that applies pressure to the steering wheel to bring the car back into the proper lane position.
  • Weight reduction - Cutting vehicle weight allows for increased engine performance and better fuel economy in all driving conditions, says the AAA. And all automakers are now actively engaged in reducing vehicle weight. It’s one way of helping them meet increasingly more stringent fuel economy standards.

Distracted driving

Distracted driving

Technology and driver distraction

Making the announcement of the 2012 technology trends in new vehicles, AAA’s experts warn that the increasing use of such technology in vehicles can create unintended consequences.

There are crash avoidance technologies such as lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control that will help reduce the impact of drivers who are distracted, and the AAA expects these could have a significant positive safety benefit for distracted driving and some other unsafe driving behaviors.

However, there are other technologies being promoted to address distracted driving that raise concerns among some safety advocates, the AAA tells us, that might in fact be encouraging people to engage in additional distracted driving behaviors behind the wheel by making it easier to do so, even tacitly endorsing these activities.

“People who wouldn’t write a text or type in a Facebook status update while driving might perceive voice-activated offerings through their vehicle as providing a safe way to do this,” Pritchett said. “A driver might think that ‘the auto manufacturers install seatbelts and airbags to make me safe, surely they wouldn’t install features that make me less safe’.”

One way to look at this is that such in-vehicle applications are “safer” than doing them through smartphones. In that respect, the AAA says it’s probably more accurate to refer to those in-vehicle applications as offering “less dangerous” ways of doing these things. And auto manufacturers are providing consumers with systems that offer them safer ways of doing things they’re already doing. But safety advocates lean in the opposite direction, essentially saying automakers shouldn’t enable or encourage people to engage in these types of distracting activities that make them more dangerous drivers.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (AAAFTS) has two research projects underway to help better understand distractions and technology. University of Utah researcher Dr. David Strayer is doing simulator and some on-road research into different non-driving activities and their relative risk for distracted driving.  The AAAFTS also recently commissioned MIT researchers to look at in-vehicle safety technologies and any unintended safety concerns they may present to real-world users.

The bottom line position of the AAA is that distraction is an issue for all drivers. “Much attention gets paid to new teen drivers due to their generally greater challenges with impulse control, their greater engagement with electronic devices, and their inexperience driving, to include managing distractions,” said Pritchett.


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