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Best new-car safety features explained

Sensors are working overtime as new cars scan the road for crash risks. But what do all the fancy acronyms mean?

Road safety used to be about how vehicles broke. Now it's about how they brake. In place of crumple zones, seatbelts and airbags to minimise harm in the event of an accident, carmakers are using sensors to try to avoid the crash in the first place.

The array of TLAs (three-letter acronyms) marketing departments use to tout these technologies is as numerous as car brands themselves.

These days, there's no reason to be impressed if a salesperson talks about standard ABS (anti-skid brakes), traction control or electronic stability control — by law all must be on every new passenger vehicle sold.

And over the next few years, you can expect even more acronyms in the standard features list, as authorities look to mandate the fitment of more safety technology.

The real surprise is that the cheaper, mainstream brands are offering similar technology to the luxury makers. Just last week, Skoda announced that autonomous braking would be standard on its cheapest car, the Fabia hatch, which starts at just $15,990 driveaway.

The move shows how fundamentally cheap it can be to add lifesaving technology on the production line. And it embarrasses some of those prestige brands who continue to bundle sensor-based safety features in "packs" costing thousands of dollars.

Sadly the same applies to basic tech such as reversing cameras. When a lens can be fitted to the rear of a $14,490 Honda Jazz there's little excuse not to have it on every car, let alone one with a six-figure price.

CarsGuide looks at the latest technologies, most of which are available from mainstream brands, either as an option or as standard equipment.

Adaptive cruise

Adaptive cruise control is a must-have for those who travel long distances in Australia. Drivers can set the speed and the car uses radar sensors and/or cameras to gauge the distance to the vehicle in front and then maintain a gap, automatically braking and accelerating as required. Premium systems are fitted with a stop-and-go function that, as the name suggests, can bring the vehicle to a complete stop behind another car at the lights and then accelerate back up to speed as the traffic moves off.

Autonomous Emergency Braking

Touted as the next big thing in software-based safety, autonomous emergency braking (sometimes called active city stop) is the most ambitious integration of sensors applied to mass production cars.

In its most basic form the software collates data from radar and lidar sensors and/or stereo cameras to determine the path and speed of objects ahead and to an arc either side of the vehicle.

If the system calculates a probable collision it alerts the driver. Should the driver fail to react, the brakes are automatically engaged to slow or stop the vehicle.

More advanced versions can detect humans, cyclists and large animals. Most systems are calibrated for city speeds; others will operate to highway limits.

Australia's crash safety body, ANCAP, is pushing to have AEB standard on all new cars.

A recent real-world study pointed to a 38 per cent reduction in rear-end crashes for AEB-equipped vehicles.

Adaptive headlights

Car makers use different terms for it, but adaptive front lighting systems allow the car's headlights to follow the curve of the road, improving vision at night. The system is calibrated with the steering so that when lock is applied, projector lamps in the front headlight housing move accordingly, adjusting the beam to follow the road.

High-beam assist

Adaptive highbeam assist is a boon for those who do a lot of night driving. Sensors scan the road ahead for oncoming traffic and slower moving vehicles and automatically dip the high beam when another vehicle is in dazzle range.

LED headlamp-equipped models can dim individual segments of the beam, allowing the high-beam to stay on without dazzling the oncoming driver. Most systems are linked to the steering and will "turn" the light beam as steering lock is applied.

Blind spot monitor

Blind spot monitoring uses cameras or radar sensors to keep an eye on vehicles in adjoining lanes on a freeway. Passive versions typically have an orange warning light or logo in or on the side mirrors, which flashes if there is a car in your blind spot and beeps if you attempt to change lanes when it's not safe to do so. Active versions take it another step by braking or steering to hold the lane should the driver attempt to alter course when another vehicle has been detected.

Emergency assist

Emergency assistance technology can detect that the car has had a serious accident and automatically contact emergency services. The level of sophistication varies from car to car, but some will call the vehicle and dial 000 if there is no response, while others automatically call if the airbags are deployed.

They can also provide the location of the crash to rescue authorities.

Lane departure warning

As with BSM, lane departure warning comes in a variety of forms, from passive to more interventionist.

If the car starts to wander out of its lane and the driver hasn't used the indicator to signal a lane change, the technology determines that the movement is accidental and will either emit a noise or vibrate the steering wheel to warn of the danger.

While most systems only warn the driver, some will use steering input to keep the car on track. Some people love it, some switch it off.

It is also sometimes teamed with driver fatigue alerts, which monitor steering inputs and detect if the person behind the wheel is becoming drowsy.

Rear cross traffic alert

Rear cross traffic alert helps avoid collisions when backing out of a parking spot or driveway. Sensors detect vehicles approaching from the left and the right and passive systems will issue a warning beep(s), while the active versions will physically brake the car to avoid the crash.

The more advanced systems have another vital purpose — they can potentially avoid a driveway toddler tragedy.