It wasn’t that long ago when we had no vision behind or below our sight lines when we backed cars, or in blind spots when we wanted to change lanes. We had to cancel or reset our cruise control for slower traffic in our lanes. And if we were momentarily drowsy or distracted, we risked drifting out of our lane or plowing into someone slowing in front of us.

These readily available technologies -- back-up cameras and warning systems, blind spot warnings, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist -- can effectively reduce these risks, and others. While back-up cameras will be federally mandated beginning in mid-2018, unfortunately most of these wonders are not available on most vehicles, and they are usually offered as extra-cost options. To assess the future of these systems and their practicality in mass production, I spent time with Continental AG, an auto supplier deeply involved in bringing these technologies to the masses.

Senses for safety

Thing like adaptive cruise and other "Advanced Driver Assistance Systems" (ADAS) use cameras, radar, lidar, laser and/or ultrasound to provide drivers with information on things they can't otherwise see around their vehicles, says Karl Haupt, executive vice president of the ADAS business unit at Continental. He calls them "senses for safety," because they definitely can prevent accidents and save lives.

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The three most popular today, likely because they are readily available and reasonably affordable (typically $200-350 each), are back-up cameras, back-up warnings and blind spot alerts. The back-up or review camera provides a clear picture on your infotainment screen or center mirror of what is behind your vehicle, often with lines that move with the steering to indicate your intended path and distance to objects behind. Back-up warning is often paired with the camera and gives audible indications of how close your vehicle is to something behind it. And blind spot warning provides both aural and visual alerts to the presence of vehicles beside and just behind you that may not appear in side mirrors.

Next on most wish-lists (but more expensive at about $700) is adaptive cruise control, which automatically reduces your speed using braking if necessary to that of a slower vehicle ahead in your lane. And if the system goes beyond speed adjustment to automatically hard brake your vehicle to a full stop when it senses something ahead that you don't want to hit, it becomes emergency front collision avoidance (about $1,200). Also increasingly popular are lane keep assist ($450), which gently steers you back into your lane when you're not paying enough attention, and surround view systems ($700), which use multiple cameras to provide a bird's-eye view all the way around your vehicle, a big help in parking.

Back-up cameras most popular

Continental says back-up cameras have far surpassed leather seats and was fast closing on styled aluminum wheels at a near-75-percent installation rate in 2015 model-year new vehicles. Adaptive cruise, lane departure warning, blind spot alert and autonomous emergency braking are growing but still in the 5-20 percent range for 2015. Another fast-growing ADAS is autonomous park assist, which can choose a suitable parking space and steer your car into it while you operate just the pedals.

And the list of highly useful ADAS features continues to grow as automakers enthusiastically adapt them to compete for our business. Among them are night vision, traffic sign recognition, driver monitoring, which decides that you may be getting drowsy or just need a break, and rear cross traffic alert. When combined, some of these technologies boast a capability for semi-autonomous driving in stop-and-go traffic.

Continental sees such ADAS features as a group increasing five-fold in worldwide installation from 2015 to 2020 as new-vehicle buyers become more aware of them and increasingly see them as good safety and convenience values. Also as they become more affordable and move from optional to standard in mid- to upscale trims and models.

Assist or crutch?

My own experiences with them have been mostly good, though with some reservations. I love rearview cameras and sorely miss them when driving cars without them. I like (but don't totally trust) blind spot warnings, but find adaptive cruise annoying when a vehicle in another lane or crossing in front causes my car to needlessly brake. And I appreciate lane keep assist when driving tired at night, but keep it turned off otherwise.

And I very strongly recommend not relying completely on them. We all (hopefully) have the long-developed habit of checking over our shoulders before changing lanes, and should still do even in cars with blind spot warnings. Should you someday break that habit and totally trust the warning system, what happens the day it's not working?

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Then there’s the guy who knocked a side mirror off his car backing into his garage while looking at the rearview camera but paying too little attention to side clearance. Another who nearly ran into a policeman who was not wearing a reflective vest at an accident scene when the bright, flashing police lights distracted him while using the car's night vision. Still another who backed out of a parking space smack into a car crossing behind him despite his car's rear cross traffic alert system.

While a vehicle equipped with adaptive cruise and lane keep assist can operate almost autonomously in freeway traffic, don't count on those systems keeping you safe. Lane keep is only as good as the lane markings it sees, and electronic systems occasionally crash. So if you have these systems now or in the future, please don't fall into the dangerous trap of believing you can text or read instead of paying attention. Trust us, you can't.


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