New auto safety technologies leave some drivers bewildered

Smarter Driver: Car Safety Tech That Works

WASHINGTON (AP) — Many Americans buying new cars these days are baffled by a torrent of new safety technology.

Some features will automatically turn a car back into its lane if it begins to drift, or hit the brakes if sensors detect that it's about to rear-end someone else. There are lane-change and blind-spot monitors, drowsiness alerts and cars that can park themselves. Technologies once limited to high-end models like adaptive cruise control, tire-pressure indicators and rear-view cameras have become more common.

The features hold tremendous potential to reduce deaths and injuries by eliminating collisions or mitigating their severity, safety advocates say.

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New auto safety technologies leave some drivers bewildered
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff (L) takes a ride in a self-driving car at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California on Wednesday, July 01, 2015.AFP PHOTO/JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)
An Autopilot self-driving sign sits on the window of a Tesla Motors Inc. electric automobile store in Munich, Germany, on Monday, March 30, 2015. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk wants to transform Tesla into more of a mass-market automaker by building a battery-cell factory big enough to supply 500,000 vehicles by 2020. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Tesla Motors Inc. Model S electric automobile fitted with Robert Bosch GmbH automated driving technology drives on a test track in Boxberg, Germany, on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. The market for automated-driving systems might total $42 billion by 2025, Boston Consulting Group estimated in January. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A GPS driving sensor antennae sits on the back of a Tesla Motors Inc. Model S electric automobile at the Robert Bosch GmbH driverless technology press event in Boxberg, Germany, on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. The market for automated-driving systems might total $42 billion by 2025, Boston Consulting Group estimated in January. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - FEBRUARY 02: U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx inspects a Google self-driving car at the Google headquarters on February 2, 2015 in Mountain View, California. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx joined Google Chairman Eric Schmidt for a fireside chat where he unveiled Beyond Traffic, a new analysis from the U.S. Department of Transportation that anticipates the trends and choices facing our transportation system over the next three decades. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A camera peers out from the front grill of Google's self-driving car in Mountain View, California, on May 13, 2014. A white Lexus cruised along a road near the Google campus, braking for pedestrians and scooting over in its lane to give bicyclists ample space. AFP PHOTO/Glenn CHAPMAN (Photo credit should read GLENN CHAPMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: People look at camera on top of a Google self-driving car at the Google headquarters on September 25, 2012 in Mountain View, California. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed State Senate Bill 1298 that allows driverless cars to operate on public roads for testing purposes. The bill also calls for the Department of Motor Vehicles to adopt regulations that govern licensing, bonding, testing and operation of the driverless vehicles before January 2015. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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But there's one problem: Education on how to use them doesn't come standard. Bewildered drivers sometimes just turn them off, defeating the safety potential.

"If people don't understand how that works or what the car is doing, it may startle them or make them uncomfortable," said Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council. "We want to make sure we're explaining things to people so that the technology that can make them safer is actually taken advantage of."

The council and the University of Iowa, along with the Department of Transportation, are kicking off an education campaign Wednesday to inform drivers on how the safety features work. The effort includes a website, MyCarDoesWhat.org, with video demonstrations.

In a survey by the university, a majority of drivers expressed uncertainty about the way many of the safety technologies work. About 40 percent reported that their vehicles had behaved in unexpected ways. The least understood technology was adaptive cruise control, which can slow or speed up a vehicle in order to maintain a constant following distance. That technology has been available in some models for at least a decade.

The features vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, from model to model, and from one options package to another.

Joe Kraemer, 70, a retired accountant from Arlington, Virginia, said the first time he drove his wife's 2015 E-Series Mercedes he nearly jumped out of his seat. He was beginning to change lanes when suddenly there was a piercing "beep beep beep beep. ..."

Now when that happens, his wife tells him: "Relax. It's just that you have somebody in your blind spot and you're about to kill us."

Kraemer's wife, who has been driving for 50 years, has been back to the dealer twice for hour-long lessons on how to use the car's features.

"She's really learning a computer," he said.

But as the technologies become more available in lower-priced models, dealers may not be willing to spend as much time with drivers as Mercedes has with Kraemer's wife.

Owner's manuals are also falling short, safety advocates say. They have become "documents written by lawyers for lawyers," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director at the Center for Auto Safety.

"From perhaps a 50-page understandable document 20 years ago, they have gone to a 500-page opus that is intimidating to all but the most studious car buyer," he said.

Some manufacturers offer CDs or DVDs on how to use safety systems, but "most of the time drivers don't actually take the time to review them," said Peter Kissinger, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

A study by the foundation of early safety technology adopters found that some drivers believed collision warning systems would brake to stop their vehicles for them, when actually the systems only alert drivers to an impending collision. It's still up to the driver to hit the brakes.

"That's a dangerous scenario," Kissinger said.

Some collision mitigation systems, increasing in availability, do more than warn, actually applying the brake if the driver doesn't act quickly enough.

Ray Harbin, 67, AARP's state volunteer coordinator for driver safety courses in Montana, said the frustration seniors experience learning new-car technology is similar to what they feel when they are forced to adapt to software changes in computers like a new version of the operating system.

"I'm confident that we're never going to get people to understand all the things their cars can do," he said. "It's just like buying a new computer. You're never going to understand all the capabilities of your computer. The cars are made now for the very best and most intuitive drivers, and we're not all that way."

Tom Pecoraro, a retired police officer who owns "I Drive Smart" schools in California, Maryland and Virginia, said the state-required curriculums taught in driving schools are typically about 15 years behind the latest technology. Classes introduce students to anti-lock brakes and airbags but are unlikely to mention adaptive cruise control and automatic braking.

"Most people don't even know how to get to their spare tire, let alone understand the technology," he said. "People want to get in their cars and drive. They want to turn the key and have it all work."

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