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Your Next Car Will Be Smarter Than You Are

Dan Tynan

When my family made its epic pilgrimage across the country last month, our cars — a reliable Honda Fit and a mid-1990s I-can’t-believe-it’s-still-running Honda Odyssey van — did not make the journey with us. 

We figured life in a new home in a new state deserved a new car. So we’ve been trying a few out, and it’s been an education on wheels.

Your Next Car Will Be Smarter Than You Are

The 2015 Ford Edge comes standard with a passel of driver-assist technologies — like adaptive steering, collision braking, and a 180-degree front camera — for around $32K. (Ford) 

RELATED: In 20 Years, Most New Cars Won’t Have Steering Wheels or Pedals

It’s been six years since we went shopping for a new car, but it feels more like 60. Automobiles are a lot smarter than they were just a few years ago, thanks to a raft of safety features that rely on cameras, radar, and other sensors built into the body of the car, as well as sophisticated software algorithms that can make lightning-fast decisions on your behalf.

Some of this technology is with us in cars this year, but in the next model year, these features will be entering the mainstream in a big way — inching us ever closer to the self-driving car that many of us clamor for.

Tech yo-self before you wreck yo-self
The safety tech goes by a variety of names, and the exact features vary depending on the car maker, but they generally fall into the following categories:

Adaptive cruise control. When you’re zooming along the highway at 70+, this will automatically detect if a car ahead of you is traveling more slowly than you are and ease off the accelerator before you’re on top of it.

Collision avoidance. Similar to adaptive cruise control, this is the “Oh my god we’re going to crash” sensor, which will either preset the car for maximum braking performance or do the braking for you, allowing you to stop before you plow into that stalled car that appeared to drop out of nowhere.

RELATED: FBI Warns That Driverless Cars Could Be Used for Evil

Tailgating warnings. Sensors calculate the speed you’re traveling and the distance to the next car’s bumper, and then alert you via the dashboard when you’re getting too close. (They’re also a handy way to prove to one’s spouse that you don’t tailgate nearly as often as she claims you do. Just saying.)

Blind-spot alerts. This was one of my favorite features of the Buick Enclave we drove across the country last month. Whenever a car entered the Enclave’s blind spot, an indicator in a corner of the side mirror would turn red. This removed much of my anxiety while changing lanes at 75 mph.

Lane correction. Cameras detect lines on the road and warn you if you start to change lanes unexpectedly when traveling at freeway speeds. Some models will nudge the car back into place if you’re drifting or starting to fall asleep at the wheel.

Cross-traffic warning. Instead of merely displaying what’s behind you on the rear-view camera, this alerts you if an object — like someone pushing a baby stroller — is about to enter the frame. With a Cadillac ELR we recently tested, the driver’s seat would vibrate if a barrier loomed into its view. (My wife kept saying, “The Cadillac is grabbing my butt again.” I think that’s one of the reasons she liked it so much.)

Safety at a price
What’s the catch? Money, of course. Odds are you’ll have to pay at least $30,000 for a car that comes with these features, says Ed Hellwig, executive editor at Edmunds.com. But you may be able to add a safety package to midrange cars for anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the model. Ford, for example, is offering many of these features as an option for 80 percent of its 2015 fleet.

Over time, Hellwig notes, many of these optional features may become standard or even required, just as rear-view cameras were once a high-priced option and are now required by the National Highway Safety Administration to be part of every new car starting in 2018.

“These features are much more common than most people realize,” notes Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor of Cars.com. “You can even get blind-spot monitoring in a Dodge Dart. We’re sure to see this technology spread to more models, and cheaper ones.”

Cruising the infobahn
Another way cars are getting smarter is via the Internet. Audi, Hyundai, and GM have all announced 2015 models that are rolling WiFi hotspots, some with 4G cellular connections you can share with up to seven devices.

You’ll pay extra for this, too, of course, though not as much as you might think. GM is offering data plans (via AT&T) starting at $5 for 200 MB of data a month and up to $50 for 5 GB. If you’re already an AT&T subscriber, you can add your car to your plan for $10 a month.

GM claims you can get better reception in your car than you can with your phone, thanks to a more powerful radio than what your handheld has, and a larger roof-based antenna. Well, maybe. I recently drove a 2015 Buick Regal with a 4G LTE connection, and the results were mixed. In areas where coverage was bountiful, I was able to smoothly watch a movie on a WiFi-enabled iPad while rolling down the highway. When we got to the coast where 4G was spotty, however, that iPad might as well have been an Etch A Sketch.

Your car, your self
Car makers are only just getting started with mobile technology. Vehicles that fully integrate Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Windows in the Car will probably arrive sometime in late 2015, Hellwig says. That could lead to a lot more auto-centric apps and make communicating with your car’s computer as easy as tapping a smartphone.

RELATED: Google Premieres Android Auto, Putting Your Android Phone in Your Car

Further out, Toyota is working on cars that use facial recognition to identify drivers and adjust their settings accordingly, says John Hanson, a spokesman for the Japanese car maker. A car will also learn your habits — for example, it will know you typically drop the kids at a daycare center before heading to work in the morning — and then provide relevant information about the route, traffic, or weather. But a car might also learn what kind of driver you are. If you tend to burn rubber and slam on the brakes, for example, it may adjust the antilock braking system to compensate for it.

In the future, the car will no longer be just a thing you operate, Hanson says; it will be a teammate — one you trust to take over when it sees things it can do better than you can.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.