Skip to main content

Driver assistance technologies are not all created equally

Driver assistance technologies are not all created equally


Some work well, but some are more annoying than helpful

Share this story


By now, it’s hard not to come across some new car with a suite of technologies that force you to stay in your lane or not crash into the car you’re following.

Just a few years ago, these systems were most commonly found on luxury cars and were options that were rarely ordered. However, that’s rapidly changing as some of the most popular new cars are being offered with lane departure prevention, automatic forward braking and adaptive cruise control. Some of this is due to changing vehicle requirements. From 2022, all new cars will get automatic emergency braking as standard under a pact automakers made with the US government. And these are in cars that can cost less than $20,000 – far less than the $34,646 average new car price in August 2017.

Lane departure and blind spot warnings have been shown to reduce some crashes, according to a recent study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But not all of these systems are executed as well as others, sometimes to the point of them being more annoying than useful.

Nissan is about to launch its ProPILOT Assist system on a number of its new cars, after making automatic emergency braking standard on most of their 2018 US lineup. ProPILOT Assist, however, sets the template for the company’s eventual self-driving push. For now, though, its abilities are mostly limited to driver assistance on highways – still a useful feature for most buyers.

I recently tried this on a modified Nissan Rogue in Los Angeles and the system was possibly the best I’d used in a mainstream-brand vehicle. One button on the steering wheel turns the system on and radars and cameras monitor where the lane markings are and how far the car is from other objects. In typical Wednesday morning traffic near Downtown LA, it was easy to get the Rogue up to speed and set both ProPILOT Assist and the adaptive cruise control to maintain a safe distance from the car in front of me as well as being able to stay in a lane without much input on the steering wheel. In this setting, ProPILOT Assist worked as reliably as a similar system from a luxury brand or Tesla.

But while driving the 2018 Nissan Leaf on a Nevada highway, ProPILOT wasn’t able to keep that car in the intended lane nearly as well as it did on the Rogue. The Nissan engineer in the seat next to me chalked it up to ProPILOT being confused by the Botts’ Dots used to mark the lanes in Nevada rather than the painted lines in LA.

Even on this early Leaf example, though, ProPILOT Assist seemed like a promising sign the technology is moving forward significantly – ahead of greater acceptance and more mainstream cars being offered with it. Nissan may have taken its time, but taking their time may have paid off.

Honda is ahead of Nissan by a couple of years in offering their low-priced cars with a suite of driver assistance technologies under the Honda Sensing banner. The 2018 Honda Fit is one of the least expensive new cars on sale in the U.S. and now is one of the least expensive to offer features such as adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking. At just less than $19,000, a Fit can be equipped with the Honda Sensing group of driver assistance technologies – many of which have, until now, been more available on larger, more expensive vehicles.

The Fit is the sort of car that doesn’t appeal to just one group. Because it starts at around $18,000, it’s a popular first new car for young adults who need one vehicle that’s efficient, easy to park and can hold a city apartment’s worth of stuff. For older drivers, its tall doors and simple controls makes it easy to live with. It’s perhaps a little more mainstream than a $30,000, fully electric Nissan.

Which is why it’s concerning that a Fit with Honda Sensing may be some people’s introduction to driver assistance technologies. Standard on some versions of the Fit, the system incorporates largely the same functions at the Nissan system. Yet it feels at least a generation behind ProPILOT Assist, let alone what some of the luxury brands offer. It’s not that the Fit is dangerous, but it certainly frustrates as you fight it sometimes to stop the car from being too distracted by the lane markings, or wonder if it will slow you gradually or make an abrupt emergency stop.

The other frustrating thing is that Honda does it better in more recent products like the Civic and CR-V, and yet some older tech still filters into their other cars. Go into a Honda showroom and compare a Fit and Civic, and you may not realize the two have similar features that operate very differently.

It’s been established early adopters are more forgiving of driver technology shortcomings, even if federal regulators insist they aren’t ready. While that may be fine with a Tesla customer, drivers who are less comfortable with any level of self-driving technology may be put off – especially if tech isn’t that well executed. Considering these systems have been around for more than a decade, there are fewer and fewer reasons for them lacking sophistication when they do make it to mainstream cars.