How Tech Is Changing the Cars We Buy (and How We Drive Them)
Buckle up. Check your mirrors. Both hands on the wheel. Use your signals and check your blind spots. These rules have been ingrained in our minds since we learned to drive.
Fast forward to today: Our cars look and feel different, and we rely on a veritable bevy of tech gadgets, bells and whistles to keep us in line on the road. Cameras, sensors, hands-free connectivity, collision warnings and driver assist features are now along for the ride. Despite their potential to cause distractions, they’re intended to make us safer, or at least, help us better enjoy the journey.
With these new technologies competing for our eyes and ears while we drive, we examined how consumers are adapting, how car tech is changing the driving experience for good or for bad, and what it all means to drivers and the future of car buying.
We conducted a study surveying more than 1,000 drivers who have in-car safety technology features (and compared them to 137 who do not) to examine just how these features are affecting drivers, as well as the cars they buy. Features in our analysis include:
- Cameras, like backup cameras or bird’s-eye view/overhead cameras
- Alerts and sensors, such as backup sensors, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warnings, collision warnings and drowsiness alerts
- Driver assists, like automatic parking, lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control and adaptive headlights
- Driver overrides, including automatic emergency braking
- Hands-free and connectivity technologies, such as voice control, Bluetooth, GPS/navigation and Wi-Fi
- Security and emergency features, like roadside assistance or stolen vehicle tracking
What we found:
- Consumers highly value car safety, and nearly 9 out of 10 consider in-car safety technology important. The majority trust these features, most notably backup cameras and hands-free connectivity.
- Enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily equate to across-the-board demand: While 8 in 10 consumers surveyed have a favorable opinion of car tech, most features still aren’t considered “must-haves” in car-buying. However, demand for top tech favorites is notching upward.
- Drivers surveyed show an over-reliance on safety tech features, and have some misconceptions about what they do. As more features become standard, education is imperative.
- Trust in car tech doesn’t necessarily correlate to trust in the concept of self-driving cars: 1 in 2 drivers are still apprehensive about fully autonomous features.
Trusting Tech to Take the Wheel: Drivers Show Confidence in Safety Features
Overall safety is top-of-mind when choosing a vehicle, second only to reliability. Of those surveyed, 96% classified safety as important or very important, with a slightly higher emphasis among females and parents. Drivers’ safety priorities appear to align closely with their value of in-car technology: A full 87% consider car tech safety features to be important when they’re buying a new or used car.
What’s more, once consumers own a car with this technology, they tend to not only like and value it, but also to place a lot of trust in it:
- 82% of respondents have had positive experiences with in-car technology.
- Just over half (54%) “fully” trust their technology, while only 4% don’t trust it at all.
- The most commonly cited reasons for their confidence: “positive personal experiences” (52%), followed by the fact that insurance companies give discounts for such features (46%).
- Even among respondents without car technology, more than 1 in 3 say they trust it.
Most drivers cited their own positive personal experience as the reason for their trust in technology.
The automotive industry recognizes the interest in, and value of, these features as well, and car manufacturers are making some of this technology standard in advance of US regulation. (See below for a breakdown of standard and optional technology features.)
Jim Sharifi, editor for CARFAX, confirms that safety agencies validate that these features provide an additional layer of protection for drivers and passengers. “NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] lists features such as a rearview camera, forward collision warning and lane departure warning as recommended safety technologies,” says Sharifi.
However, in many ways, the safety benefits of much of this technology remain to be proven. While some in-car safety tech has been shown to help reduce accidents (such as backup cameras and automatic braking), the efficacy of some driver assist features is yet to be proven in real world scenarios, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). And research from NHTSA has shown that hands-free does not necessarily have a positive effect on safety.
Pumping the Brakes: While Enthusiasm Is High, Demand Is Slow to Catch Up
Drivers want a high level of safety and they see these features as helping to achieve that, but they don’t necessarily consider them essential. In fact, while 39% of our respondents said their car technology does make them feel safer, a slight majority (53%) consider these technology features to be more about convenience.
Most respondents consider car safety technology to be more about convenience than safety.
When they shopped for their current vehicle, most respondents wanted many of these tech features in their cars. However, when asked if these features were “must-have” items worth paying for, drivers stopped short:
- 95% were interested in backup cameras, but only 43% of them considered cameras a “must-have” feature.
- 85% had their eyes on hands-free connectivity, with only 41% giving it a “must-have” status.
- 66% looked for driver assist technologies, but only 34% would have paid more for them.
Looking ahead to their next vehicles, the majority of car tech users are still not willing to pay more for most of these features, with the exception of backup cameras and hands-free technology.
- 57% will consider backup cameras as a must-have (1.31 times the number who considered it a must have when purchasing their current vehicle).
- 50% will consider hands-free connectivity as a must-have (1.21 times).
However, while the level of “must-have” demand for emerging technology may remain temperate for consumers as they look to buy their next vehicle, it is trending upward at a fast clip: Car shoppers are 80% more likely to consider paying for driver assist features and 70% more likely for override features the next time they shop for a car.
Of those drivers who have reservations about car technology, the most commonly cited reason was insufficient testing and time on the market.
As for those who are apprehensive about these technologies, respondents without the latest in-car tech point to issues that cause them pause: The most commonly cited concern was limited testing and time on the market (35%). Sure enough, even respondents who fully trust car technology are hesitant to give the green light to some of the lesser-proven features; perhaps because 50% consider themselves late adopters of technology in general.
Despite an 82% positive opinion of car tech:
- Less than half (42%) are interested in semi-autonomous driver override features.
- Roughly a third (32%) are interested in fully autonomous vehicles, while almost half (49%) have no interest at all.
Shifting Behaviors: Tech Features Supplementing Traditional Driving Habits
As adoption of car tech safety features evolves, so does driver behavior as it relates to this technology. Our survey suggests that drivers have some misconceptions about today’s varied in-car tech features. Some drivers expect more out of technology than it can actually deliver.
- One in four of those surveyed expected today’s automatic emergency braking to do more than just forward braking. (This misconception was demonstrated in the highly publicized autonomous driving test crash caused by cross traffic.)
- One in three drivers with safety technology features admit to being “unknowledgeable” about driver override and driver assist features.
Consumers’ confidence in tech is doing more than just changing expectations—it’s already showing up in some of their driving habits.
When backing up, 25% of drivers said they look over their shoulders through the rear window infrequently or not at all.
Case in point: You’re preparing to back out of your garage or a shopping mall parking space. What do you do first? Driver education courses dictate that the first course of action is to look over your right shoulder and out the rear window before proceeding. Despite this rule, only 25% of surveyed drivers with car tech do this as a first step, while 30% now report checking their backup cameras as a first step. Indeed, 11% of drivers with car tech said they look over their shoulder rarely or not at all, with an additional 14% claiming to do it infrequently.
This trend of increasing reliance could be to the detriment to drivers, despite some states’ allowance of the backup camera use on road tests. CARFAX’s Sharifi explains: “It’s important to remember that while safety technology is continually evolving, these are still driver aids, meaning that they are not a substitute for safe driving habits. These features can improve driver confidence and add a layer of convenience, but drivers still need to be alert and aware of their surroundings.”
In addition, drivers with in-car technology like Bluetooth connectivity are more apt to engage with their devices while driving, compared to those without in-car tech. This habit, even when done hands-free, is said to cause four times the number of crashes, according to NHTSA. Drivers with Bluetooth more readily admitted to talking on the phone, texting, or using apps or social media while in the car (only 23% who have this feature totally refrain from these activities, while 34% without it report refraining).
Car tech users are 16% more likely than their non-techie counterparts to engage with their smartphone devices while in the car.
While drivers show a generous amount of confidence and reliance on these features, traditional driving techniques must still rule the road. Part of that will come down to education. To get to know the tech in their new or used vehicle, 62% report that they ask the dealership or previous owner about how to use the features (55% read the manual), while an alarming 58% “try it and see how it works.”
This high rate of experimentation can be problematic. For instance, semi-autonomous capabilities intended for highway driving may not be appropriate on a twisty backroad. At the same time, some features need to be manually activated, so a lack of education can prevent drivers from taking advantage of all the functions the vehicle offers.
Looking Down the Road: What to Expect for the Hottest In-Car Tech Features
Car buyers can take cues from our survey respondents, who had the most favorable opinions of the following features: Backup cameras, hands-free connectivity and alerts/sensors (for backing up, lane departure and collision warning).
Sharifi points out that consumers can count on manufacturers fine-tuning the technology to continue to improve its effectiveness: “Camera systems have evolved, with some automakers offering surround-view systems that provide a bird’s-eye view around the vehicle. These systems are particularly helpful in larger trucks and SUVs, as they improve driver confidence and provide superior visibility in crowded parking lots and congested urban areas.”
Manufacturers and regulators are working toward making some of these features standard, a move that will likely increase users’ comfort level and trust. Sharifi says this accessibility works in consumers’ favor: “This is a boon for consumers shopping for used cars on CARFAX.com, since desirable features that were once high-priced options are now widely accessible in both new cars and used cars within the most recent model years.”
Here’s where the offerings stand for car technology features.
As of the 2017 model year, the majority of vehicles offer options for forward-collision warnings, lane departure warnings, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. Sharifi points out: “Used car buyers are in a better position than ever to reap these benefits, as these safety technologies are readily available in trade-ins and off-lease vehicles.”
Consumers should be aware that history shows technology moving at a more rapid pace than government regulation.
While NHTSA is calling for some car tech features to be included as standard in all new vehicles, regulations take time. For features such as seatbelts and airbags, regulation came decades after the features were first introduced. And backup camera regulation is coming 16 years after the technology first was introduced in the US in 2002. So, while consumers wait for this in-car tech to become standard in the vehicles they’re buying, they may have to opt for the more expensive models.
Speeding into the Future: The Bottom Line for Car Buyers
With their favorite features in mind, their trust in technology to guide them, and the ever-growing accessibility of technology, it’s only a matter of time before consumers push their “nice to have” features further over the “must-have” line. In the meantime, car buyers should continue to be proactive about learning what these features offer in both safety and convenience, and how to properly use technology to complement their driving habits.
Start by doing your research—look at the IIHS vehicle safety ratings and NHTSA crash test ratings. NHTSA currently advocates backup cameras, forward collision warning and lane assist as recommended safety tech features, but it also continues to test the effectiveness of other technologies, having made the case for life-saving features like stability control to become standard equipment. Also, evaluate the features and options available on different make/model vehicles for sale at places like CARFAX.com.
To get the most out of any tech feature, ask the dealer or previous owner, read the manual, and most of all—don’t forget those ever-trusty rules of the road.
CARFAX conducted an online survey in May 2017 leveraging a panel of US vehicle owners maintained via Research Now. Respondents were screened for current ownership of a vehicle equipped with car tech safety features, such as cameras, warnings/sensors, or driver-assist features. 1,003 US car tech users and 137 non-car tech users made up the sample.