DETROIT (Sept. 20, 2012) — For car shoppers, or anyone these days just trying to keep up with vehicle technological advances, cars are awash in a sea of acronyms.
As if the technology isn't already confusing enough, the abbreviations can make your head hurt.
If you've been out of the car market for a while, you'll be amazed at what you've been missing. And what you'd miss if you were without it for a while. I know—my older-model car has nothing except stability control when it comes to safety or creature comforts, and I'm literally lost without the navigation systems I've grown so used to in test cars. (Fortunately, it just died so I'm going shopping in earnest.)
Here's a look at what some of the names and acronyms mean and why you may want what's behind all those letters.
Infotainment: Most everyone has their own name for it, but expect any new car you consider to have some kind of system that links navigation systems with phones and multimedia players, such as iPhones and iPods. Some will even read you your emails or texts. I always thought I'd never run out of things to listen to with satellite radio in cars, but now I really miss my songs when I'm without them in the car. So I love the ability to connect my—OK, my kid's—iPhone with any new car I'm driving.
Having all of the features accessible in one screen can be a real blessing if it's done well. And a real curse if it's not. Ask Ford Motor Co.: Its system, called MyFord Touch, was threatening to sink the car maker's reputation for a while and is still getting bad reports from some reviewers, most notably Consumer Reports magazine. That said, it's been improved and does keep everything hands free—an attractive option with more states adopting laws banning handheld cellphone usage.
Cadillac has the CUE (Cadillac User Experience) system that hooks up with Bluetooth and a navigation system, and includes an interface that functions like a tablet requiring you to spread your fingers to zoom in or swipe to switch screens.
No matter what it's called, the most important thing to remember is to test the system fully in any car you're considering buying to make sure you understand how to use it and will neither be distracted by nor raging at it while driving.
Lights: Headlights are going high-tech on us. Daytime Running Lights, or DRLs, are among the lowest tech but are increasingly common. They are lower-level headlights that stay on during daylight hours. Studies have shown DRLs are effective in reducing crashes.
Cadillac is among the auto makers offering High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlamps, which it says help drivers see better around corners/curves at night. HID lights are brighter than those that are LED, which stands for light emitting diode. Mazda calls its lights that turn when you round a corner “adaptive headlights.”
Safety: There's all manner of crash avoidance technology on new cars these days. That's because it's a far more effective—and cost-effective—way of saving lives than focusing on protecting people after they crash.
Blind-spot detection warns you when another car is — you guessed it — in your blind spot. Ford's system is called BLIS for Blind Spot Information System. Lane departure warnings and prevention let you know when you're drifting across a lane without signaling, and, in more advanced versions, nudge you back in unless you nudge right back.
Toyota and its luxury brand Lexus are particularly fond of acronyms. Toyota's electronic controlled braking, or ECB, uses anti-lock brakes (ABS) to increase steering control and uses sensors to determine the pressure needed for braking. Its Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management System (VDIMS) integrates braking/steering/uses vehicle stability control — also known as electronic stability control — and traction control (TRAC) to minimize the loss of traction in a turn. The Advanced Pre-Collision System (APCS) uses a camera to detect when a driver is not facing the road and alerts the driver to objects in front of them by gently applying the brakes.
Toyota's SST (smart stop technology) helps put the pressure on the brakes in situations where force is applied to both the gas and brake simultaneously. This could occur when a mat or something else causes the gas pedal to get stuck and a driver tries feverishly to brake their way out of the situation.
Mercedes calls its four-wheel electronic traction system 4-ETS and says it distributes weight to the wheel with the best grip.
Active systems: Ford vehicles offer electronic power assist steering (EPAS), which corrects road irregularities and improves the feel of the steering, while compensating for pulling or drifting that can occur, such as in crosswinds.
Adaptive cruise control became my newest favorite feature after I repeatedly relied on it during a recent trip that tied me up in beach and construction traffic on I-95. These systems will keep you in cruise control in stop-and-go, high-speed traffic. You just need to resist the temptation to hit your brakes when you think you're going to be too close to the car in front. You can typically adjust the distance you want to keep. The Prius plug-in hybrid's system was flawless on our trip and beeped when I got close to 20 mph to alert me that I was soon to be on my own.
But we never have to be truly on our own anymore thanks to the tech waiting at a car dealership near you. Just make sure that along with knowing what you're missing, you learn what you're getting — and how to use it — if you choose to buy new.
This report appeared on shopautoweek.com, a website of Crain's Autoweek magazine, a Detroit-based companion publication of Tire Business.