Today's high-tech safety systems can't quite handle car washes

October 28, 2016

Modern cars come with a huge array of safety systems to keep drivers and passengers safe. These systems are good at spotting obstacles like pedestrians and other vehicles, but some things confuse them--things like car washes, for example.

That might sound like an absurd shortcoming, but if you look at things from a computer's perspective, it makes perfect sense. Radar or cameras see a spinning brush ahead, identify it as an obstacle, and sound an alarm--maybe even apply the brakes.

All told, at least 33 of today's vehicles have trouble in such scenarios. Frankly, that's okay: we'd probably be more concerned if their software didn't raise red flags when heading into the gauntlet of a car wash.

No, the real problem is that on rare occasions, owners may need to deactivate elements of their cars' safety systems for short periods of time. Some automakers have anticipated those events, while others clearly haven't.

Tesla is firmly in the former group. Its video overview of the Model S, for example, includes instructions for overriding the car's automated parking brake feature when entering a car wash.

Volvo, on the other hand, hasn't been so considerate. To disable automated braking on models like the S60, drivers will need to dig deep into their owner's manuals. (In the case of the XC90, instructions are found on page 536.)

Brands like Acura, BMW,  Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Kia, Land Rover, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Ram, Subaru, and Toyota fall somewhere in-between. For instructions on system overrides in vehicles from those automakers, click here.

For better or worse, this problem won't be going away. In fact, as semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles become commonplace, owners may become even more frustrated, because automakers will likely make it more difficult to disable self-driving features. Breathe deeply and buckle up....

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