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Car Technology Buying Guide: Safety Tech & Infotainment Systems

apple carplay. Photo by smoothgroover22 on Flickr / CC BY -SA 2.0.
Photo by smoothgroover22 on Flickr / CC BY -SA 2.0.

As technology has become an everyday feature of our connected lifestyle, cars have become increasingly packed with technological features. Technology is more important to shoppers than the color of the vehicle; 69% of car shoppers prioritize tech features over color when shopping for a new vehicle. Safety technology is exceptionally important, with 84% of car shoppers stating that it’s more important to get the safety features they want than it is for them to get an infotainment system.

However, there’s so much technology in cars right now that it can be difficult to understand what each feature does and how it can benefit the driver. This guide will explain many of the most common technology features. Although many of these features are only available in packages, a working knowledge of each system can help you make an informed decision when deciding whether to include a technology package with your next vehicle.

Infotainment Systems: Information and Entertainment in One

Infotainment systems provide information, entertainment and control to the driver, typically through a video screen with either a touchscreen or button-oriented interface. Common features of these systems include Bluetooth connectivity, GPS navigation, streaming music and video playback. The cost of an infotainment system can run anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Built-in or External Connectivity: Which is Better?

Photo by Car leasing made simple on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.
Photo by Car leasing made simple on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Infotainment systems offer a number of desirable features, including Internet connectivity, hands-free calling, voice control of the car’s systems and integration with smartphone apps. You can install an aftermarket infotainment system, but most manufacturers offer their own infotainment systems, as described in an earlier article. Although there are differences between systems, most offer similar functionality; the biggest differences between different infotainment systems center on the method of connectivity.


Some infotainment systems feature an integrated cellular connection, allowing the vehicle to directly connect to the Internet. Other systems require the user to connect a smartphone to the system to provide connectivity. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages.

  • Integrated connections allow owners to take advantage of the Internet to access their vehicle. You can lock, unlock, start and stop the car remotely. You can track driving behavior, and there are also a number of anti-theft programs available. However, these built-in connections often require a monthly or annual fee.
  • Smartphone-based connections aren’t quite as convenient or full-featured, but they don’t require any regular fee to use. In addition, these systems are often cheaper since they don’t need to include connectivity hardware.
  • Regardless of the type of connection, most infotainment systems integrate well with common smartphone apps on both the Android and iOS platforms, including Pandora, Spotify and more.

Apple CarPlay: Enjoy Siri on the Go

Photo by LoKan Sardari on Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo by LoKan Sardari on Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

CarPlay is Apple’s latest addition to the iPhone’s feature set. It’s offered on all iPhones, beginning with the iPhone 5, and features dedicated integration with the vehicle’s infotainment system when the phone is connected via a cable. With this system installed, drivers will be able to access most of their iPhone’s features while driving, including calling, messaging and mapping. Drivers can also access music stored on their iPhone and use a number of preselected apps, each of which has been specifically redesigned for safe in-car use.

CarPlay also integrates Siri, Apple’s digital assistant, into your car. You can use voice control, touchscreen interfaces or in-car controls to navigate through your phone. Incoming phone calls are played over the car’s stereo system, and text messages are read aloud by Siri. You can place calls or send text messages using Siri’s voice control. Most auto manufacturers have pledged to support CarPlay at some point. At the moment, it’s available in a few different models from makers such as Ferrari, Honda, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and more. There are a few aftermarket systems that offer support for CarPlay; most of these systems start around $1,400.

Android Auto: Your Favorite Droid in Your Car

Photo by Maurizio Pesce on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.
Photo by Maurizio Pesce on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Similar to CarPlay, Android Auto offers an integrated way to control the driver’s Android smartphone through the car’s infotainment system. Android Auto includes many of the same features as CarPlay, though obviously it won’t include Siri. Google offers Voice to control their smartphone with voice commands. Only specifically designed apps will work with Android Auto, including Spotify, Google Maps, Google Music and others.

Android Auto requires a standard USB cable to connect with your car’s infotainment system. The Android Auto app was launched in early 2015 and can be used by any Android phone running android version Lollipop or later. Most automakers have promised to support Android Auto, but right now only the Hyundai Sonata supports the app. A few aftermarket systems also support Android Auto, starting at around $1,400.

Safety Systems: Keeping You Safe Wherever You Drive

Drivers now have a number of safety technologies to choose from. These technologies can be divided into several different categories: parking and traffic assistance, collision safety and travel safety.

Parking and Traffic Assistance: Easy Parking and Safe Commuting

Many accidents occur when visibility is impaired and drivers don’t have much room to maneuver, such as in parking lots or traffic jams. Safety systems in this category help to remedy this situation through the use of video cameras, distance sensors, radar and lidar technology.

Parking Assistance

Parking assistance systems take the stress out of parallel parking. Through the use of distance sensors, video cameras, and software, the car eases itself into a parallel spot. The driver maintains control of the vehicle’s speed, but once the system is engaged, it steers the vehicle into the spot. Some manufacturers also offer fully automated systems. These systems allow drivers to park in smaller spaces while reducing their chances of accidentally bumping into another car. The cost of a parking assistance system starts around $500.

Rear Cross-Traffic Alert

Cross-traffic alert systems warn you when an object, such as a vehicle or pedestrian, is about the cross the path of your vehicle as you back up. When sensors on the back of your vehicle detect an oncoming object, a tone or light warns you of the approaching vehicle. These systems are often included with blind-spot monitoring systems and may range in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Proximity Alerts

Proximity alert systems engage at slow speeds and warn you about obstacles around your vehicle that you may not be able to see. Cameras and radar systems work together to help detect obstacles and warn the driver before a collision occurs; some systems will even apply the brakes to prevent a collision. Typically, you can’t purchase this system separately; it’s usually included as part of another system that uses the same sensors, such as adaptive cruise control.

Back-up Camera

Photo by banoootah_qtr on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.
Photo by banoootah_qtr on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Back-up cameras offer drivers a full and undistorted view of the rear of the vehicle. These cameras are connected to the car’s infotainment system; when the driver shifts into reverse, the screen displays the image from the camera. These systems help to compensate for the limitations of rearview mirrors. If your car already has a display screen, you can buy a back-up camera for as little as $150.

Collision Safety: Applying Extra Power when You need it Most

New technologies make it possible for vehicles to proactively work to protect their passengers. Technologies in this category help to mitigate the severity of collisions, and some of these systems can even prevent collisions. Collision detection systems are typically offered as part of a package that includes multiple subsystems; the cost of a complete system starts around $1,000.

Brake Assist

Brake assist systems monitor the car’s behavior and apply the full braking power available in emergency situations. By working with collision detection systems and learning the driver’s typical behavior, these systems are able to distinguish a normal braking situation from an emergency stop. In these high-risk situations, brake assist can reduce stopping distance by up to 45 percent; according to the IIHS, brake assist is one of the most promising new technologies for reducing collisions.

Collision Warning Systems

Through a combination of video cameras, radar and lidar, collision warning systems detect when a collision is possible. The system plays an audible tone to warn the driver before the collision, allowing the driver to take preventive actions. Although these systems only give drivers a few extra moments, those moments may be all that’s necessary to avoid a collision.

Proactive Braking

Proactive braking systems give the car a limited ability to apply the brakes without driver input. Using a variety of sensing technologies, including radar and video cameras, the car keeps track of its distance to various objects; when the car is too close to something, it begins applying pressure to the brakes to reduce stopping time. Some systems are even capable of applying full braking power to avoid an imminent collision.

Collision Avoidance Systems with Emergency Steering Assist

Using many of the same techniques of the other collision prevention technologies, collision avoidance systems proactively take steps to completely avoid accidents. In addition to proactive braking, these systems also give the vehicle a limited ability to steer the vehicle out of the way of a collision.

Travel Safety: The Joy of Travel Re-imagined

Long drives can lull drivers into a state of drowsiness and complacency, but new technologies can help take the drudgery out of long drives. These technologies give drivers assistance to maintain safe driving habits.

Adaptive Cruise Control

Photo by U.S. Department of Transportation on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0
Photo by U.S. Department of Transportation on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

Adaptive cruise control takes the burden of speed control away from the driver. Once the driver sets a speed, the cruise control system attempts to maintain that speed. However, if the system’s sensors, including cameras and radars, detect another vehicle in your path, the system will adjust your speed to maintain a safe following distance. This system is especially useful in heavy traffic situations; it removes the need to concentrate on starting and stopping while in a traffic jam.

Lane Departure Warnings

By using a camera to scan the road ahead of the vehicle, this system warns drivers when they’re at risk of leaving their lane. These systems can help drivers to stay in their lanes when drowsy, but they work best in concert with other collision avoidance systems. The IIHS has found that many drivers begin to ignore these systems after a while, so the additional detection systems ensure that the warnings aren’t ignored when they really matter.

Lane Centering Systems

Lane centering systems are a more advanced version of lane departure warning systems. In addition to monitoring your position in the lane, these systems can use your steering system to keep you in the center of your lane. These systems prevent accidents caused by suddenly leaving your lane, especially when you’re tired.

Adaptive Headlights

Adaptive headlights use small motors linked to your steering wheel to adjust the angle on your headlights. By altering the trajectory of your headlights, this system helps you to see around otherwise blind curves, giving you advanced warning of obstacles that you might otherwise miss. In addition to brake assist, adaptive headlights are highly effective at reducing accidents.

Futuristic Comforts: The Future of Car Travel is Bright

As technology has become more common, increasingly futuristic systems are beginning to find their way into cars. These systems use advanced technologies to make driving easier and safer than ever before.

Heads-up Displays

Photo by Digitaloutsider on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5
Photo by Digitaloutsider on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.5

Taking a page from fighter jets, heads-up displays use small projectors to display relevant information on the windshield in the driver’s field of view. This information includes speed, heading, navigation directions and more. By presenting this information in an easily accessible location, heads-up displays allow drivers to keep their eyes and attention on the road.

Night Vision

Night vision systems use far-infrared cameras to help you see in the dark. These cameras allow you to easily see features that might be hiding outside of your headlights, such as animals, roadside debris or pedestrians. Typically, this information is presented on its own separate high-resolution display.

Semi-Autonomous Vehicles

By combining several different control systems, automakers can create semi-autonomous vehicles. Although these vehicles still need driver input, they remove the need to concentrate on the fine details of driving. Drivers of semi-autonomous vehicles can instead spend their attention on watching for threats and preventing accidents. These systems use a variety of technologies, including adaptive cruise control, lane centering, proactive braking and collision avoidance.

Do you have any of these features in your car?

Which of them sounds the most interesting to you?

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