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The most desirable new car features

Technology that is so innovative it literally grabs the steering wheel and takes over is already available on some vehicles, but it’s not necessarily what consumers want.
Image: car's blind spot
Half of drivers in a recent survey said they would consider paying extra for features that detect and warn them of vehicles in their blind spotsVolvo
/ Source: Forbes Autos

Technology that is so innovative it literally grabs the steering wheel and takes over is already available on some vehicles, but it’s not necessarily what consumers want.

Half of drivers in a recent survey said they would consider paying extra for features that detect and warn them of vehicles in their blind spots.

But the survey also found that drivers are squeamish about giving control of their vehicles to a computer. Most prefer the blind-spot detection system to provide a noise warning, a steering-wheel vibration, or some other alert system, to let the driver take the necessary evasive action, according to the survey by Harris Interactive, a consumer research firm in Rochester, N.Y.

Harris researchers found similar preferences for lane-departure warning technology. It might be fine to electronically alert drivers that they’ve drifted into another lane, but drivers prefer to return to the proper lane themselves.

“Anything that’s intrusive or takes away from the driver’s experience is something that consumers are going to be nervous about,” says Thilo Koslowski, an automotive practice leader for Gartner, a tech research firm in Stamford, Conn.

Go to the “slide show” link below to see a ranking of the 10 high-tech features consumers want most.

Through its AutoTechcast study that ranks more than 60 advanced automotive features based on consumer preference, Harris experts found that drivers often consider safety technology a must-have, even if it means paying more.

But the research also suggests that consumers are most attracted to features that enhance their own safety rather than that of others.

Pedestrian-sensing systems aren’t well received, says Stephen Lovett, director of automotive and transportation research in Harris’ Ann Arbor, Mich., office. “The safety features that perform well are those that protect the driver and the occupants in the vehicle. But when it comes to protecting people outside the vehicle, the interest wanes.”

Pedestrian-sensing ranked near the bottom of Harris’ list of desirable tech features, along with cup-holders that heat and cool beverages, panoramic sunroofs, rear-seat entertainment, and satellite video.

Many of these features don’t directly impact driving, so they aren’t a priority for most people, Lovett says.

“In general, things like cooled cup-holders are nice to have, but someone wouldn’t choose or not choose a vehicle because of it,” he says.

Gartner’s Koslowski says any new feature — safety or otherwise — should make driving easier, more enjoyable, or safer. That means next-generation features like onboard Internet access and email, or futuristic concept cars that drive themselves, might be tough sells, at least in the short term.

“Replicating the personal computer experience inside the car is ill-advised in my opinion,” Koslowski says.

But new features that save people time and money do tend to be well received.

The feature drivers most want on their vehicles is rollover detection with advanced side-curtain airbags, according to the Harris survey. These airbags deploy preemptively and stay inflated longer than other airbags to help protect occupants in the event of a rollover. Because SUVs are more prone to rollovers, many of them already offer such systems as standard or optional equipment.

Ford’s market research shows consumer interest in fuel tanks that don’t require screw-in filler caps but seal themselves with a spring-loaded cover. Ford recently incorporated this feature on its Explorer SUV. It will likely become standard across Ford’s lineup in a few years.

Another example of an advanced feature that saves people headaches is self-repairing paint, which can automatically fill in light scratches on a car’s exterior. It’s the third most wanted new feature in the top 10 list.

Infiniti offers self-repairing paint on the EX35, a luxury model that has a base price of $34,850, and analysts expect that this feature eventually will be offered on lower-priced vehicles.

High-intensity discharge (HID) headlights are the second-most desired tech feature, according to the Harris report. They burn brighter and provide better visibility than standard halogen headlamps.

Still, the Harris study found that even drivers who are very interested in safety technology are not ready to give up steering their cars. Any innovation they feel impedes driver control or dilutes driving enjoyment is one most can do without. Examples include crash-avoidance features that in some cases automatically steer vehicles away from danger.

Research from Ford also indicates that some consumers prefer to forgo such technology altogether. “Lane-departure warning is a great safety feature, but we got feedback from people that don’t like it,” says Jack Palazzo, Ford’s manager for advanced product marketing in Dearborn, Mich.

A system on Infiniti’s EX35 warns drivers if the vehicle inadvertently crosses over a lane divider by using cameras and monitoring the steering angle and throttle position to calculate the driver’s intended path. A second system intervenes and steers the vehicle if it senses the driver isn’t reacting to the warnings. Both systems can be deactivated.

Josh Clifton, a spokesperson for Infiniti, says the lane-departure prevention system is a useful safety feature that isn’t forced on drivers.

“First, it’s not a standard feature. And second, you have to turn the feature on while you're driving,” Clifton says.

Infiniti reps would not say how many EX35 buyers have opted for the technology, but they said they are pleased with the response. The option will be made available on the 2009 Infiniti FX. Tom Plucinsky, BMW’s product and technology spokesperson, says the lane-departure warning system offered on its vehicles doesn’t actually steer the car but gently shakes the steering wheel, giving drivers the sensation of going over rumble strips on a highway.

“The driver gets physical feedback but doesn’t relinquish control. The system can also be turned off,” Plusinsky says.

Other advanced safety features from BMW include anti-collision technology that responds to perceived “panic” situations, such as the driver suddenly hitting the brakes or abruptly releasing the gas pedal. In such cases, the brakes have the capability to improve stopping time.

Many automakers are actively developing collision-avoidance technology, including BMW, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo. Though these features are useful and will likely cut down on accidents, they’ll probably take time for consumers to embrace, says Joseph Audette, a consultant for the research firm Global Insight in Lexington, Mass: “Users won’t accept the machine controlling their ultimate fate.”

To get drivers to adopt such safety features, automakers must educate them about how they operate, with a focus on minimizing any “control” issues, Audette says.

“It’s a tough barrier to cross in terms of consumer acceptance, in much the same way that anti-lock brakes weren’t accepted at first,” he says.

But it can be done, as evidenced by the wide adoption and acceptance of anti-lock brakes and, more recently, stability-control systems, which automatically adjust throttle and braking to keep vehicles from skidding.

Harris’ Lovett says cost significantly affects the adoption of new technology. That’s why most advanced features start in the luxury segment and then trickle down to others.

“The luxury driver can better absorb a $600 high-tech headlight on a $60,000 Cadillac Escalade than on a $16,000 Ford Focus,” Lovett says. “And it’s too much of a hit to make it part of the standard price of a lower-cost vehicle.”

That’s not to say there aren’t features that start at the low end and migrate to the luxury segment.

“The iPod interface on the audio jack is a good example of this,” Lovett says. “It started out in compact cars because of the appeal of iPods to a large number of younger buyers. Now it’s expanding to other classes.”

Harris Interactive determined which high-tech features are most and least popular by conducting an online survey of nearly 13,000 adult drivers earlier this year. To see the full list of the top 10 most coveted new tech features, click on the “slide show” link above.