"Do you have anything in a stick shift? I hate automatic transmissions -- I like to drive the car, not have the car drive me."
-- Overheard at a used car dealer
Whether you sympathize with that sentiment or think the car buyer overheard above is an automotive Luddite, the fact remains: Long term, he's probably out of luck.
Manual transmissions are going the way of the dodo. While there are still a few available -- Honda's Accord, Volkswagen's Passat and BMW's 3 Series being notable examples -- there seems to be a widespread preference for automatic. And if the trends travel much farther along the road we're on now, pretty soon, the cars really will be driving us -- and not just automatically, but autonomously.
(Almost) Self-Driving Cars
In April, Consumer Reports did a big story on self-driving car technology. And as it turns out, Google's (GOOGL) (GOOG) test fleet of 100 driverless cars may not (yet) be ready for prime time. But a host of driverless or driver-light tech already exists, and it's paving the way towards an autonomous car future. The technology includes:
Forward-collision warning, or FCW, uses cameras and sensors to detect objects such as cars, bicycles or pedestrians in front of a car -- and the car alerts the driver if they get too close, or it can apply the brakes itself if necessary.
Blind-spot monitoring sensors alert a driver of danger when attempting to change lanes, if there's another car in the way. Pedestrian detection, a similar technology using the same equipment, warns of pedestrians in a car's path.
Adaptive cruise control pairs the sensors from FCW with a computer that tells the car when to brake or accelerate to maintain a set distance behind a "lead" car ahead.
Lane departure warning automatically keeps an eye on the road's median and shoulder, and it sounds an alarm if a sleepy driver begins to drift out of the lane.
Why Do We Need This?
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, deaths from motor vehicle accidents "increased in 2012 after six consecutive years of declining fatalities" to 33,561. While final figures aren't yet in, the National Safety Council estimates that fatalities increased again in 2013, up as much as 4.9 percent to 35,200 people, plus an additional 3.8 million crash injuries requiring medical attention.
Research shows that some 90 percent of these deaths were due to human error. An autonomous car, by removing human frailties from the equation, might be able to reduce these numbers. Research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety cited by Consumer Reports shows that inclusion of FCW alone reduces the incidence of automobile crashes by 7 percent, while pairing an automatic braking system with FCW cuts crash incidence by 14 to 15 percent.
While some drivers might worry that autonomous cars may cause accidents and kill people -- and they will, because no machine is perfect -- the facts are clear: They'll kill fewer people than human drivers do.
How Much Will It Cost Me?
Considering the impact on cost, Consumer Reports observed that most FCW, LDW and similar crash-avoidance technology offered in cars today is bundled into high-priced options packages in higher-end automobiles. The publication estimates that on average, these packages add about $2,000 to the price of a new car. (That sounds like a lot, but it's less than the additional cost of hybridizing a standard internal combustion engine car).
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%For car companies like Ford (F) and General Motors (GM), this kind of bundling makes economic sense. So long as crash avoidance technology remains a novelty, the companies can use it to lure those consumers into higher-margin luxury options packages, boosting their profit margins. Meanwhile, scaling up production of these features will gradually lower their price, due to efficiencies of scale -- and will make the options more affordable to more budget-conscious consumers.
But will mainstream consumers be willing to bite the bullet and pay extra for crash avoidance tech? Early signs are optimistic. A recent IIHS field test of the technology found that 72 percent of car drivers who were given the opportunity to try out crash avoidance features "would want them in their personal vehicle."
Once automakers realize that this is what consumers want, the future becomes inevitable. Autonomous cars are coming.
Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Ford, General Motors and Google (A shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Google (A shares).
Even Non-'Driverless' Cars Will Soon Take More Control
Car dealerships, unlike many other retailers, expect you to haggle. It's built into their price tags. So if you pay the sticker price for any new or used vehicle, basically ever, you're getting hoodwinked. When you walk into a dealership, prepare to haggle over just about everything -- the trade-in value of your car, the price of the car and extras like warranties. You'll have more leverage if you have more cash, but even cash-strapped buyers can and should negotiate.
Real estate agents expect some negotiation. But when buying a home, negotiation doesn't have to be all about price. If the seller isn't willing to come down on the price, ask for extras. For instance, ask that the seller pay more closing costs (which basically amounts to a cheaper deal for you). Or ask that the seller take care of some maintenance issues you found when you had the home inspected.
Mortgage companies will quote you a rate when you ask, but that doesn't mean you need to stick to that rate. If your credit is good (find out if it is, first) or you have a big down payment, you have plenty of leverage to negotiate a lower rate. And if you can't straight-up negotiate for a lower rate, you may be able to save by paying for points. This basically means you put more cash down for a lower rate, and, in some cases, it can save you a lot of money.
If you're renting from a landlord for the first time, rent may not be as negotiable. But if you're getting ready to renew your lease, don't just accept the now-higher rental price you're quoted. Keep in mind that it's a pain for rental companies and landlords to get you moved out, prep the property and move someone new in. Unless you're living in the hottest area in town, they'll likely lose money looking for a new renter. This means they may be more willing than you'd think to negotiate pricing.
Insurance companies usually get special rates from doctors' offices and hospitals. But those rates don't automatically apply to uninsured individuals -- or those who haven't yet hit their deductibles. If a medical bill isn't going through your insurance company, negotiate it. Often times, the doctor's office or hospital will come down on the price, so that it's closer to (or if you're lucky, even less than) what your insurer might pay.
If you're in good standing on your credit card account, you have plenty of negotiating power. You can negotiate lower rates, annual fees and higher credit limits. Even if you aren't in good standing, credit card companies can help you come up with a payment plan if you can't afford the minimum payments. You just need to ask.
When hiring someone to maintain your lawn, re-roof your home or pop out a dormer window on your second story, always get at least three quotes. And once you have those quotes, negotiate for a better price or a better deal. As with buying a home, you don't just have to negotiate for a lower price. Some service providers and contractors won't bring down the price, but they will often add in extra services for the same price -- or at least for a discount.
If you've recently gotten away from your cable or Internet company's promotional pricing, you may be in for a shock. Most of us fail to read the fine print that says just how much the service will cost after the promotional period. Before you call the company, look at the promotional offers other services in town are offering. Then, tell them you're considering switching so you can get a better deal. You may not talk them all the way back down to the promo price, but you can get pretty close.
Any time you buy big-ticket items like furniture or appliances, you should negotiate the price. This is especially true if you're buying in quantity -- for example, if you're purchasing both a washer and a dryer or an entire living room set. If the salesperson won't negotiate with you, ask to talk to the manager.
As with credit card companies, if you're in good standing with your insurance company, you may be able to negotiate for better rates. At minimum, you should ask about bundling your insurance policies to see how much that could save you. And if you notice your insurance company is running a new promotional deal that you're not in on, ask about it. The company may sign you up just for asking.
Collections calls are never fun, but they can be productive if you look at them the right way. Once an account of yours has gone to collections, that means the company has paid pennies on the dollar for the account. In other words, your $5,000 debt may have cost them $200 to take over from the original company. So a collections company may accept $1,000 for a $5,000 debt -- or possibly even less.
Whether you're shopping at a thrift store or a garage sale, you should always negotiate the price of used stuff. You can usually buy two or three things at once to get a better deal, or just negotiate for a better price on a single, bigger-ticket item.