Safety technology has progressed a lot over the last few years. Just a decade ago, side airbags were rare, and only the most luxurious new models offered cameras and other electronic gadgets. That's no longer the case. Many cars now offer all sorts of safety features -- and it can be hard to keep track of the litany of technological features. Since we know it's complicated, we've listed some of the more common features and defined a few to help you better understand.
Automatic braking: Some cars offer automatic braking systems that will slam on the brakes to prevent a collision. Usually, these cars use sensors mounted in front to determine if a collision is imminent. If it is, the system kicks into action to avoid (or lessen) the impact from the collision. One example of such a system is Volvo's City Safety technology.
Blind spot monitoring system: Many cars now offer blind spot monitors. These usually work by assessing the blind spot and warning drivers if there's a car in it. Such warnings can be an audible tone or a flashing light on the mirror in the direction of the occupied blind spot.
Collision warning: Collision warning systems are similar to automatic braking technology, though they don't quite go as far. In a car with a collision warning system, an impending crash usually leads to flashing lights and a loud noise. This alerts the driver, who can then steer and slow down to avoid the accident.
Drowsiness detection: Some cars employ drowsiness detection systems that can assess whether a driver is too tired to drive. Most systems measure a driver's steering inputs and how long he has been behind the wheel. Drowsiness detection systems can sound an alarm if they detect it's time for a driver to pull over and rest.
Honda LaneWatch: Honda's LaneWatch technology uses a camera on the passenger side of its newly redesigned Accord sedan. When a driver turns on the right turn signal, the camera comes on and projects its image in the center screen. The system is helpful when making a lane change, as it effectively eliminates blind spots.
Lane departure warning: This feature is becoming more common, even value oriented brands like Toyota offer the feature. Lane departure warning systems monitor a road's lanes and alert a driver if he is weaving over them. Some systems are more active than others and even help steer a car back on the correct path by braking a wheel. In recent Cadillac models, a vibrating seat alerts drivers that they may be heading off course. When properly equipped, vehicles from automakers like Infiniti and Toyota can even help physically keep the car in the proper lane by automatically using brake or steering inputs.
Night vision: Night vision remains confined primarily to luxury cars. This feature uses infrared cameras or thermal imaging to display objects a driver might otherwise miss at night. Usually, it projects its display into a corner of the windshield or instrument cluster.
Nissan Around View Monitor: Nissan offers a feature called Around View on several models. The system goes beyond a simple reversing camera and instead uses four cameras mounted around the car. The four cameras project images on the center screen, which takes the guesswork out of parallel parking or reversing.
Rear cross-traffic alert: A few brands, most notably Ford, offer a rear cross-traffic alert feature on new models. While the name is a mouthful, the feature is quite helpful. When you're backing out of a parking spot, rear cross-traffic alert lets you know if there's a car coming from either side. We've found it useful, especially in SUVs and other large vehicles with big blind spots.
Reversing camera: A reversing camera is, quite simply, a camera on the back of a car that turns on when the car is shifted into reverse. It can be useful in larger vehicles or for parking in tight spaces.
Volkswagen Intelligent Crash Response: This system comes standard in many Volkswagen models. In an accident, it automatically unlocks doors so occupants can get out, disconnects the battery and shuts off the fuel supply to prevent a fire. It turns on the interior and hazard lights, as well.