Forget new car smell…new car safety features have become the industry’s most powerful selling tool.

by Sarah Lee Marks

As dinner-table proclamations go in our family, this was a huge one: “It’s time for a new car,” my 83-year-old mother said

“Why?” we all asked, in perfect unison.

“Your car has barely 21,000 miles, and it’s only four years old,” I pointed out.

“Six years old,” she corrected me, “and I want my last car to be fancy.”

I briefly considered demanding that she surrender her keys altogether…but then pictured my life as an official taxi driver. “Let me check my schedule for Tuesday,” I sighed.

I wanted some time to do my research before venturing onto a car lot. I started at the NHTSA.gov and Safercar.gov websites for the latest recalls, updates, and consumer complaints. My next online stop was www.iihs.org, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety website. The drop-down menu on the crash avoidance page allowed me to compare cars—by year, make and model—for safety features. Then off we went.

“I just want to be able to see over the steering wheel,” Mom informed me, as we pulled into our first dealership.

 “Agreed, but these new cars have some options that will accommodate your driving style,” I replied…and keep everyone else from getting hurt, I muttered to myself.

“Please show us your mid-size sedan with back-up camera,” I requested of Eddy, the salesman who greeted us at the door. Without asking our budget, credit score or what we might be trading, he led us to an electric blue four-door in the corner of the showroom, price tag fully loaded about $50,000. As Mom wedged herself into the driver’s seat, Eddy discreetly opened the door to a full 90- degree angle and raised the 8-way power driver seat. “This seat will tilt and support your lower back,” he informed her, adding that it had “a cushion extender for lower leg support on long drives.”

My shortlist of requirements included the aforementioned back-up camera—federally mandated in all new cars beginning 2018—as well as blind-spot alerts. However, it soon became evident that my request was a bit more complex. The nuances and names of the features on new cars are as diverse as the variety of makes and models. After a brief introduction to the car Mom had roosted in, Eddy led us to a car parked in a garage area off the showroom. “It is easier for me to demonstrate how well this car performs,” he said, as the garage door opened. “Let’s take a test drive.” 

 

Smooth move, Eddy. He took the wheel with Mom up front and me in the rear. As he reversed into a parking spot on the lot, he pointed to the 7” screen on the dash. “These green, yellow and red-colored lines move to help you align with the parking space markings.”

“I wouldn’t trust that,” Mom snapped. “You should still look over your shoulder and use your mirrors.”

 “This is an extra set of eyes,” Eddy responded, without missing a beat. Suddenly a beep sounded, getting louder and faster as he reversed toward the curb. “That’s the back-up camera working with the rear parking assist sensors.”

He touched the screen and the scene from the rear changed: “If you click on this square you get the 360- degree view, another angle shows below the bumper, which keeps your garage door from damaging it if you didn’t pull in far enough. This side shot will let you see someone approaching your car if you are parked in an isolated place.”

Eddy backed through the space, as if we were backing out of a spot. An SUV appeared on the dash screen several yards away. The beep started again. “Our car is going to stop rather abruptly in three, two, one,” he said, as it did. Not a jerking whiplash sensation, just a firm stop. “That is our Rear Cross-Traffic alert with emergency braking because you didn’t hit the brake.” 

“Wow, I didn’t see them,” Mom cooed.

She and Eddy swapped seats and the test drive continued. Soon, a different sound chirped. “That’s the Blind Spot Monitor,” Eddy said, pointing to the passenger side mirror. A tiny image of two cars was flashing as a car in the next lane came alongside us. “The car has sensors in the wheels, which detect a car coming into your blind spot.”

 “Can you turn off the noise, so it isn’t constantly beeping in heavy traffic?” I asked.

 “Our car allows the owner to set that choice of alert, but I don’t know about the competition,” he replied, and then directed Mom onto the freeway.

“I don’t like the big trucks and merging,” she protested.

 “You don’t have to be concerned anymore,” Eddy offered. “The Blind Spot warning will keep you safe when merging or changing lanes.”

 As she merged into traffic the car sounded off again.

“That is the Lane Departure alert telling you that you’ve changed lanes without using your directional,” he said. “Do you know how many people don’t use their signals when changing lanes?” 

“How does it know?” Mom asked.

“There is a camera facing outward from the front windshield,” Eddy explained, pointing behind the rearview mirror. “The camera reads the lane markings on the road as your travel. When your car edges over the line without using your signal, the car beeps and a picture of the car with a line on either side changes color from green to yellow. If you are about to cut someone off the color turns red and if you don’t correct yourself in seconds, the Lane Keeping Assistance pushes you back into your lane. Can you feel the steering wheel give a tug?”

 “Yes,” she replied, “and it feels like it is vibrating too.” 

 

“The car warns you when you are edging the lane, in case you are falling asleep or are distracted,” he said. “In our cars, it vibrates the seat cushion, pulsates the steering wheel, and will flash a signal on the dash. If you do not correct the car in three seconds, the Lane Keeping Assist kicks in for you. You can set the amount of time before it reacts. Not all brands give you all these safety features in one package like ours.”

 “Mom, I want to try the Automatic Emergency Braking if you’re okay with that?” I asked, smiling at Eddy. My mother and I switched seats.

“I’d like to show you how our Adaptive Cruise Control works before we head back,” Eddy offered. “With the adaptive cruise, you have to be going over 25 miles per hour to set the cruise control to the speed you want. Then you set the number of car lengths you want to maintain between you and the car in front of you. The set number of car lengths is also important when driving without cruise control—for the forward collision alert system and automatic braking.”

“Are you going let her demonstrate that too?” snickered Mom from the back seat.

“Remember the camera in front that reads the lanes?” Eddy said. “The car has a radar sensor mounted in the front grill facing forward. It is wired to the camera and car computer. When the sensor detects the car in front of you slowing down, the adaptive cruise slows the car by gently braking, to keep the number of car lengths consistent.” 

Sure enough, after I activated the cruise from the steering wheel at our travel speed, the car automatically slowed with the traffic, then picked up speed as the distance between cars widened—without my having to touch either the brake or accelerator.

“And if that car in front stops suddenly,” Eddy said, “this car will stop even if you don’t hit the brake.”

 “How?” Mom and I wondered aloud. 

“The camera and sensors detect the car in front slowing down or suddenly stopped,” he explained. “The warning sound beeps loudly while the word BRAKE flashes in yellow and then red. In other brands, you may only get the impending danger warning sound and display on the dash. They charge extra for automatic or crash-mitigation braking. We include it in our safety tech package.”

Eddy was homing in on the close.

“Oh, look it’s flashing,” Mom squealed as I watched traffic ahead start to back up. Before I could react, the car was stopped.

“Normally,” Eddy explained, “you get the warning first, have time to apply the brake yourself or steer away if it is safe and you are awake. But if you had an emergency medical condition and couldn’t slam the brake, the car would do it for you. Did you feel the seat belt tighten? Oh, and the brakes are readied to deploy, just in case, to protect you.”

“I’m exhausted already,” sighed Mom, “but that was very impressive.”

“Does this only work with the adaptive cruise control on?” I asked, calming myself with yoga breaths.

“As a matter of fact,” he smiled, “our car is one of a few that has this same technology for a speed of only 5 miles per hour. This is where Pedestrian Detection on our Automatic Emergency Braking really stands out.”

“Pedestrian what?” I asked. “Did you say the car detects jaywalkers with their faces in their phones?”

Eddy looked somewhat taken back by my comment, but in true professional fashion Eddy regrouped with a retort of his own, “and scooter-rockets too.”

I considered the errant toddler or loose animal darting across my path.

“Does this car give directions?” Mom inquired.

 It was a question I hadn’t thought to ask, given the navigation map splayed across the screen.

“As a matter of fact, that’s a great question,” Eddy smiled. “Our SOS-Concierge Response system will give you live turn-by-turn voice guidance to your desired destination, so you don’t have to type or voice-command if you don’t want to.”

“So, if I’m lost, they tell me where to go?” Mom continued. “My friend Sally has that, and it came in handy the other day.”

Before I could ask her for details, Eddy saw his opening and took it: “Mrs. B…if you were in an accident—not your fault, of course—but you couldn’t answer the 24/7 emergency operator, our trained operator would call 911 and dispatch a first responder.”

Eddy pointed to a red button on the rear-view mirror. “This blue one here is for the concierge service: directions, reservations, and mobile wi-fi hotspots. We use satellite technology to locate you, even in the desert.”

“Does this require an annual subscription?” I asked.

“It’s free as long as the car is under warranty.” Eddy smiled.

As we returned the car to the dealership, Mom gave Eddy a nod of approval. She looked at me and pointed towards the door. “Do you think you can get him down to $30,000.00 if we pay cash?” she whispered.

“A $20,000 discount is probably beyond my magic skills Mom,” I replied, “But let’s go home and talk about everything we saw today. Then we’ll decide what you really need.”

“Honey, this car’s got to get me to ninety-five,” she laughed, “I need everything.”

Crunch Time

I had no sooner delivered my mom and her new car home when I was the victim of unspeakable irony. Parked at a gas pump, wallet in hand, I noticed a minivan inching backward towards me.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” I screamed, doing my worst imitation of a cheerleader.

Then Bang. 

The van crunched into the front of my car and stopped. A young woman’s face craned out the driver’s window of the offending vehicle.

“What were you doing?” I asked in my outside voice, pointing to our bumpers. “Didn’t you see me waving at you and screaming to stop? Your van has rear sensors and a back-up camera. How does this happen?”

“I was handing my daughter her drink,” she muttered, “This is my husband’s car, he must have the sensors turned off.”

“You were driving backwards, distracted?” I said in disbelief as she got out of the car to look at the damage.

“I’ll take care of the repairs,” she replied as she handed me her license and insurance.

“Great,” I said. “We’re both going to have bad CarFaxes now.”

“Huh?” she sniffed.

“When you have insurance fix your car from a crash, the repair shows up on CarFax as an accident,” I explained. “The bad CARFAX report lowers the resale value of your car. It’s called Diminished Value, and it requires a separate claim to your insurance, to recoup the loss in price at trade-in or sale time.” I took pictures of all her contact information, insurance and the scene where my car sat with a broad white stripe across the front.

“Oh, I’m really sorry,” she said, “I had a lot on my mind with school starting this week.”

“Well, consider this a teachable moment,” I sighed. At least I didn’t have to go shopping for a(nother) new car.

Editor’s Note: Sarah Lee Marks is a car concierge and automotive consumer advocate for all things car-related. Sarah lives in Henderson, Nevada with her husband, Norman. You can ask her car questions at her website:www.mycarlady.com.