5 safety features that do the driving for you

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George Jetson's flying car hasn't hit car showrooms yet, but there are plenty of other options beginning to make driving as easy as flying there in a car that folds into a briefcase.

Warning systems have emerged for worries you didn't even know you had. Cars can parallel park themselves. Some vehicles can even drive themselves.

All of this technology removes some of the burden and worry from the daily grind. But since many of these features are offered only in luxury cars, it will be a long time before every driver has them.

A January report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that promising safety technologies typically take three decades to spread to the cheapest new cars, and at least that long before 95 percent of vehicles on the road - the bulk of them used cars - have them. For example, front air bags are only now approaching that 95 percent threshold.

And technological safety nannies may be a double-edged sword: They help you avoid accidents by alerting you to hazards, but they may also make you lazy by taking over your duties as a driver, some automotive experts suggest.

Each technology also adds to the sticker price of your new car and to the price of repairs when you somehow do wind up in a car accident (and, thus, end up paying more in car insurance premiums as well).

Here are five technologies beginning to appear on U.S. roads:

1. Self-driving cars. Nevada is allowing the robotic cars pioneered by Google to have test runs on the state's roads, with the goal of allowing residents to legally operate driverless cars in the future. If it's legal in Nevada, it must be good for the rest of the country, right? The cars aren't available for sale yet; so far, they are only being tested. They use radar, global positioning and computer vision to drive without someone holding the steering wheel. (See " Self-driving cars: You can text, but you can't drink .")

2. Self-parking cars. The 2012 Ford Focus can park itself and can help a driver find a parking space to pull into. The driver doesn't use the steering wheel, but instead puts the car in reverse and uses the brakes as the car parks itself. Mercedes-Benz has cars that do the same thing, and BMW's self-parking car can drive itself into a tight-fitting garage (and out again). The BMW can back itself out of the garage, but driving out of a tight parking space may be a new skill drivers will have to learn.

3. Blind-spot monitors. Mazda has blind-spot monitors on some of its cars that help alert drivers to cars approaching on the sides by signaling via mirrors that move, light up and beep. The sound warning can be turned off in heavy traffic on many of these systems, leaving the blinking light as adequate warning, says Brandy Schaffels, senior editor at TrueCar.com, which has written about such safety features.

"It's just in your peripheral vision to let you know that something is there that you might not have seen," says Schaffels, who has driven with such monitors.

The rear-facing camera that helps with blind spots behind a car or truck is becoming more common in new vehicles. The federal government is preparing to make such cameras mandatory in all new cars, probably in 2014.

4. Cross-traffic alerts. Backing out of a parking space between two minivans can be a test of nerve and patience. Some Ford cars employ the same radar used in catching blind spots to pick up a car moving at least 5 mph within a 45-foot range -- or five parking spaces -- from the side. Warnings are given with an indicator light on the outside mirror, an audible alert and message center text warning.

5. Lane-departure warning. Cameras behind a rearview mirror monitor lane markings; if your car strays, a rumbling steering wheel can subtly alert you, says Schaffels, who has driven cars with such warning systems. It's like having Botts' dots in your steering wheel. To help prevent a driver from oversteering back into their lane, some systems slowly brake the car to help pull the car back into the lane.

But will they help?

Not everyone is a fan of these new technologies. Since most accidents are due to driver error rather than the car itself, the money spent on technology add-ons is better spent on taking an advanced driving course, says Carroll Lachnit, features editor at Edmunds.com.

John Bowman, spokesperson for the National Motorists Association, agrees. "The driver gives up a certain autonomy and control" with some of these technologies, Bowman says. He adds that it's a mistake to let such features lull you into a false sense of security.

Too many flashing lights, beeping warnings and screens to watch can be distracting, says Jamie Lincoln Kitman, who writes about cars for National Public Radio's "Car Talk."

"I think there's way too much going on inside cars," Kitman says of existing technology."Everything that you do introduce that tends to eliminate driver responsibility is probably dangerous."

Even George Jetson should check his mirrors for approaching cars.



The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.



This article appears in: Personal Finance , Insurance

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