9 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Vehicle’s Bells and Whistles
I like my car’s owner’s manual.
Not only does it give my glovebox something substantive to hold besides random drive-through napkins, but the act of not having managed to lose it makes me feel like a genuinely responsible adult. Actually deciphering this automotive novella, though, is another matter altogether.
Even some of the most tried-and-true car features have been upgraded to the point it feels like you need a pilot’s license to understand or operate them. As a result, most of us simply ignore some of the coolest abilities our cars have—if we know they exist at all.
To help demystify some of the most impressive but underused features found in today’s cars, we spoke with Jake McKenzie, the content manager for Auto Accessories Garage, who filled us in on some of the bells and whistles often found in recent-model cars that we should all know a lot more about.
You probably already know that your windshield wipers have different settings, but did you know the lowest setting on most recent-model cars relies on rain sensors to move your wipers according to need, not time? Even the occasional car pro has been blown away by this one.
“Apparently I had left it on for weeks, and when I finally drove through a drizzle, the wipers just shot right up,” McKenzie said. “I thought, ‘How did that happen?’”
So how do they work? With the use of infrared light, your car shines a beam on your windshield. This reflects nothing when the windshield is dry, but when it’s wet the light bounces back and tells the sensors to turn on your wipers—along with how fast they should be going. As McKenzie points out, this is a valuable safety feature that lets you worry about one less thing when you’re driving in a downpour.
In the past, your dashboard was a mess of static physical meters and gauges. These days, digital read-outs have changed the game.
“A lot of vehicles have fully customizable dash design or even accent lights like a green or purple glow around your cup holders,” McKenzie said. “If your dashboard displays seem counter-intuitive to you, change them up!”
McKenzie recommended that your dash be configured so the indicators you personally care most about are clearly visible with a brief glance.
“Staring down for any longer than a split second could lead to an accident,” McKenzie said.
The bane of driver’s tests everywhere, parallel parking can be a nightmare no matter how skilled a driver you might be. And while you may have heard commercials about tech that will handle that chore for you, too many people are reluctant to actually use it because it sounds complicated. But McKenzie insisted there’s nothing to be scared about—and that once you start using it, you’ll wonder why you ever resisted.
Similarly, many recent-model cars also come with back-up assistance that can even account for the ever-intimidating reverse-steering situation that comes with towing trailers behind your vehicle.
“Your back-up assist will take control of the wheel, and all you have to do is control the gas and brake, and indicate which direction you’re hoping to move the trailer in,” McKenzie said.
This isn’t your dad’s cruise control. Turn it on and it will use either radar, sonar or a stereo camera to keep an eye on the traffic in front of you and ensure you’re keeping pace with the car ahead while maintaining a safe distance from it at all times, McKenzie said.
That means you won’t have to monitor and adjust your speed like the old days, which also means a less stressful drive when you’re on a long road trip.
Ever tried to make a lane switch and not realized there’s an entire car hidden right in the pocket between where your rear-view starts and your peripheral vision ends? It happens. Thankfully, blind spot monitoring can help us catch what our mirrors and eyes don’t.
“Through sonar or ultrasound, your vehicle will let you know if a car is sitting in your blind spot either with an icon on your rearview mirror, or perhaps a warning sound when you throw the blinker on,” McKenzie said.
Now you can switch lanes more safely, even if that speed demon from out of nowhere shows up at the last second.
Okay, so you know your car has anti-lock brakes. After all, it’s been a common feature for years. But if you’re still pumping your brakes to stop, you’re not letting your ABS system do its job—a job it can accomplish a lot more effectively than your tapping toes.
“Through a system of valves and pressure, your ABS system does the pumping for you and at a rate faster than you could hope to with your foot,” McKenzie said. “The result is a much safer stop even in inclement weather.”
So stop pumping those brakes and start trusting your oh-so-sweet braking technology.
Where ABS takes care of your brakes and helps you stop safely in difficult conditions, electronic stability control helps your entire car more effectively pull off evasive maneuvers when you need to perform them—as when you start to hydroplane on wet or icy roads.
“The electronic stability control is a series of sensors that can detect when your vehicle starts to go into a skid, likely before you even realize you’re skidding,” McKenzie explained, adding that it communicates with your ABS system as well. “This system alerts your ABS brakes to start pumping, which brings your vehicle additional traction, which helps to keep your car on the road.”
The most common type of crash is a front to rear-end collision, but this nifty little piece of tech will help you cut down on the likelihood of experiencing such a crash.
“Your vehicle is likely already taking in sonar information about vehicles and hazards that are all around it,” McKenzie said. “This feature takes it to the next level and engages your brakes if you appear to be barreling toward an obstacle.”
Fact is, even the most focused of drivers can have their attention temporarily pulled away from the road—which elevates this tech to one of a car’s most safety-oriented features. Of course, this knowledge doesn’t preclude you from having to keep your eyes on the road. But it should hopefully dispel some of the panic you feel when your car starts braking without you.
We’ve written before about how gas mileage improves when tires are properly inflated. But did you know under-inflated tires will also wear out your engine faster? Fortunately, you no longer have to ensure this by digging that pen-sized tire gauge out of the bowels of your glovebox and taking a four-wheel tour around your vehicle.
“Most modern vehicles will include a tire pressure monitoring system that will let you know when your tires need attention,” McKenzie said. “I always notice my tires could use some air in the cold winter months when the frigid air causes the oxygen in my tires to contract.”