If you’re not familiar with your new car’s safety features, you’re not alone. Take the 2017 Toyota Corolla. It comes with lane departure alert, a pre-collision system, dynamic radar cruise control and automatic high beams as standard equipment.
You may not understand what all of those are, but they’re pretty cool. Yet, it isn’t always easy to figure out how to make them work. The most obvious place to learn would be a dealer — but that’s not always the case.
“We found that there is a lot of variability in how dealerships are communicating advanced safety systems to consumers,” said Hillary Abraham, a researcher at MIT’s Age Lab, which studies interactions between technology and older people as well as the general population.
In a study with Bryan Reimer, an Age Lab colleague and associate director of the New England University Transportation Center, Abraham went on a mock shopping trip to 18 Boston area dealers to learn what car buyers were being told.
“There were a couple of instances where dealerships did extremely well. There were also dealerships that provided some misinformation,” she said.
One of those involved a car’s “park assist system” — which, it should be noted, contains the word “assist.”
“In park assist systems, typically the driver’s responsible for maintaining the brake of the car, so they have to activate the brake in order for the car to stop. Otherwise the car will run into whatever car it's trying to parallel park against,” said Abraham.
“But,” she continued, "according to the salesperson, the car fully parks itself. You just press a button and you don't do anything. You keep your hands off the wheel, you keep your foot off the [accelerator] and brake, and the car will handle everything.”
So you’d be in for a pretty rude awakening if you asked the car to park itself.
The MIT study echoes a campaign by the National Safety Council created in partnership with the University of Iowa called My Car Does What? Alex Epstein coordinates the campaign. He says one big reason for the confusion is that car manufacturers use different names to describe similar safety features. Or the same feature, like braking assist, may operate differently in different brands.
“They absolutely can be different things,” he said. “Sometimes they will stop the vehicle for you if they notice an obstruction on the roadways. Sometimes they won't stop the vehicle, they'll slow the vehicle.”
And he says there can be a difference in how the car lets you know what’s wrong.
“I could get in my wife’s car and the seat vibrates if it's trying to tell me something, and I get in my car and I get a visual alert or an audible alert for the exact same thing.”
The dealers are also frustrated by a lack of industry standards. Robert O’Koniewski is executive vice president of the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association.
“A seatbelt’s a seatbelt, and an airbag’s an airbag, there’s no reason why safety braking can’t be safety braking, etc., etc.,” O’Koniewski said. He also acknowledges some confusion due to the wide variety of cars and manufacturers.
“Certainly there’s a wide range of different training that the manufacturers provide to dealers and their employees on the bells and whistles of the various vehicles," he added. "So it’s very difficult to say you're going to have [a] standardized level of training as you go from dealership to dealership and manufacturer to manufacturer. It just doesn't exist right now.”
But he also puts some responsibility on consumers, to do their homework: Go online and figure out what different cars can do — and what their safety features are. On that, dealers, researchers and safety advocates agree.