The idea of a car driving itself isn’t new. You can look to the 1939 World’s Fair to see how long automakers have been dreaming of a fully autonomous car. In 2014, we’ve advanced so far to ride in auto-piloted aircraft (a major feat) and the monorails found in airports around the country (granted, not so amazing).
But driving doesn’t require as much attention as it did before the second World War, and it’s not because we’re much better at it. Many new cars, if you’re lucky enough to be in a new car, have three groundbreaking safety systems that actually correct our mistakes.
Let’s make one thing clear. Unlike airbags and anti-lock brakes, these three features below are a long way off from showing up on the majority of the U.S. car fleet. Stability control, arguably the most important advance since the seat belt, wasn’t required by U.S. law until 2012. And when you do find a late-model car with these features, you’ll pay for them, either as standalone options or as part of more expensive packages on pricier, upper-level trims. They’re also imperfect. But price and imperfection doesn’t make their capabilities any less impressive.
Note: All prices include destination for the specific model listed. Factory incentives are not included and can potentially reduce the price.
What it does: Regular lane departure warning systems use ordinary cameras and smart software to detect lane markings. They then act in one or more ways: Flashing visual and audible alerts, vibrating the steering wheel, or lightly touching the brakes on the opposite side to straighten the car’s path. Lane correction systems actually move the steering wheel up to several degrees and can even track mild curves in the road without the driver holding the wheel. But the systems detect when your hands are free and proceed to warn you again that you have to take control. Else, the system disables itself.
Our cheapest find: 2013 and up Ford Fusion SE 1.5 with Driver Assist Package and 202A equipment package,$29,110
Also found on: Jeep Cherokee Limited, Mercedes-Benz E-Class
Adaptive cruise control
What it does: Radar sensors detect the distance of the car in front. The computer then modulates the car’s speed automatically to pace that vehicle up to the driver’s preset speed, including heavy braking if another car jumps in front or the vehicle ahead slows down rapidly. Many cars will only brake to a certain threshold and will warn the driver to apply the brakes himself. The driver can typically select how many car lengths he wants to pace, and the system will maintain that gap as best as possible. More advanced systems can work at low speeds, even in stop-and-go traffic.
Our cheapest find: 2013 and up Dodge Charger SXT Plus with Adaptive Cruise Control Group, $31,295
Also on: Chevrolet Impala 2LTZ, Jeep Cherokee Limited, Honda Accord EX-L
What it does: With radar, lidar (lasers), cameras, or any combination, an automatic braking system leverages the same sensors used for adaptive cruise control but then immediately takes control at the last moment if the driver is unresponsive to warnings that a collision most definitely will occur. Systems vary in their ability to bring the car to a dead or partial stop, and also at what speeds they are active and inactive. Most auto-braking systems work under 25 mph and can only bring the car to a full stop at much lower speeds.
Our cheapest find: 2013 and up Subaru Legacy 2.5i Premium, with Moonroof Package and EyeSight System, $26,830
Also on: Volvo S60, and most all luxury cars