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Navigating the latest high-tech features in cars

Your owner's manual, online videos, and dealership staff can help you understand which infotainment and advanced safety features your car has and how they work.

Are you befuddled by the tsunami of high-tech doodads in modern cars? You’re not alone. As one AAA member recently complained in an email, the dashboards of modern cars “resemble aircraft cockpits,” and the tech is “complicated and frustrating to learn.”

J.D. Power’s 2023 Vehicle Dependability Study of 3-year-old cars revealed that infotainment systems—touch-screen displays and smartphone connectivity—were more problematic for owners than engines, transmissions, or anything else. Two advanced safety features—lane-keeping assistance and forward-collision warning—ranked high on the problems list, too.

It’s not that the infotainment or safety features fail to work, says Frank Hanley, J.D. Power’s dependability study leader. “It’s mostly that drivers don’t know how to use them or understand what they do.”

Adding to motorists’ bafflement, automakers refer to advanced safety features by different names. Consider automatic emergency braking, a feature that was standard equipment on about 90% of new cars in mid-2022. A AAA study found that the auto industry uses 40 different names to describe it, such as “intelligent brake assist” and “collision mitigation braking system.” AAA and other organizations are leading an effort to standardize the names of advanced safety features.

Moreover, some automaker monikers are misleading, which can lead to motorists misusing features, sometimes resulting in fatal crashes. For example, 53% of GM’s Super Cruise users and 42% of Tesla Autopilot users were comfortable letting the systems drive their car without them paying attention to the road, according to a recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study. In fact, both automakers warn against doing this.

Frustrated folks may dismiss high-tech features as products of the nanny state—overzealous government agencies or automakers. Some find certain features annoying, although it’s often possible to adjust their sensitivity or even turn them off. But such features make driving more convenient and, most important, improve safety and save lives.

If you’re a perplexed owner of a late-model car (or about to purchase one), here are some suggestions for dealing with the latest high-tech features.

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Bone up on the technology

NHTSA offers an online primer on driver-assistance technologies with nifty animations showing the purpose of each safety feature.

Find out what tech features your car has. Owners are often unaware of some of their car’s fancy features.

Ideally, a salesperson should acquaint a buyer with a car’s features at the time of sale. But sales folk might not be adequately trained in the features, and buyers, overwhelmed by the buying process, may not have the patience to take in all the information anyway. Instead, the owner’s manual—that huge hunk of paper in the glove compartment, in digital form in the car’s infotainment system, or on the automaker’s website—is an invaluable source of help.

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Learn how the features work

Again, the owner’s manual is a great resource. Service writers at dealerships also can be of assistance. Some automakers have specially trained product experts, either in dealerships or on hotlines, to help owners use their vehicle’s technology correctly. Echoing Apple stores’ Genius Bars, BMW calls its experts “BMW Geniuses.”

Further, many automakers offer online how-to tutorials. For example, you can search YouTube for, say, “Ford how-to lane-keeping assistance,” and you’ll find several videos produced by the automaker.

High-tech features aren’t going away; they’re a prelude to fully autonomous vehicles­ automakers’ Holy Grail. Like them or not, you paid for them, so you may as well take advantage of them. They might even keep you out of serious harm down the road.

Peter Bohr is an award-winning automotive journalist. Email Peter at or write to Drive Smart, Westways, PO Box 25222, Santa Ana, CA 92799-5222.

You may also like: Things for older drivers to look for when buying a new car

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