Information on advanced features is less likely to reach used car buyers

February 17, 2022

Advanced driver assistance features can only make driving safer if drivers trust them enough to use them, and that trust appears likely to wane as vehicles move into the secondhand market, a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows.

“Used car buyers were substantially less likely than new car buyers to know about the advanced driver assistance features present on their vehicles,” says IIHS Senior Research Scientist Ian Reagan, the author of the study. “They were also less likely to be able to describe how those features work, and they had less trust in them. That could translate into less frequent use, causing crash reductions from these systems to wane.”

Previous research has shown that forward collision warning with automated emergency braking (AEB) reduces police-reported front-to-rear crashes by 50 percent. Lane departure warning reduces single-vehicle, sideswipe and head-on crashes by 11 percent, and blind spot warning reduces lane-change crashes by 14 percent. However, the drivers of vehicles equipped with these features don’t always use them.

To explore potential differences in how new and used car buyers view these technologies, IIHS commissioned a survey of more than 750 drivers who owned 2016-19 models equipped with advanced driver assistance features as standard equipment. The respondents included 402 owners who bought their vehicles new and another 362 who bought their vehicles used.

Forward collision warning with AEB alerts the driver of an impending collision with another vehicle and automatically brakes to avoid impact. Lane departure warning notifies the driver when the vehicle is drifting out of the travel lane. Blind spot warning provides an alert when another vehicle is present in the adjacent lane.

Along with those three proven crash avoidance technologies, the survey also included questions about adaptive cruise control (ACC) — a convenience feature that may have some safety benefits. ACC maintains a selected speed, like traditional cruise control, but automatically slows and speeds up as needed to maintain a set following distance from the vehicle ahead. Importantly for Reagan’s research, it only works when the driver chooses to turn it on, rather than functioning in the background until switched off.

The survey identified a gap between new car buyers and used car buyers when it came to whether they knew their vehicle had those technologies and could accurately describe what they do. For instance, 84 percent of new car buyers knew their vehicle was equipped with blind spot warning, compared with only 72 percent of used car buyers. Similarly, 77 percent of new car buyers could accurately describe what lane departure warning does, compared with 66 percent of used car buyers.

The survey also found that among the buyers who knew which systems their vehicles had, new buyers expressed higher levels of trust in the features than those who bought used vehicles.

One possible clue to these discrepancies could be the fact that 95 percent of new car buyers bought their vehicle from a dealership specializing in the brand they purchased, compared with 74 percent of used car buyers.

“Both sets of buyers said they received a good introduction to their vehicle’s features when they purchased it,” says Reagan. “But the buyers of new vehicles were more likely to say that the salesperson discussed details like how to adjust the features’ settings or the situations in which ACC might be useful.”

Earlier research has shown that such early exposure helps buyers develop an accurate understanding of features’ limits and capabilities, which results in more trust and greater use.

Curiously, a larger proportion of used car buyers than new car buyers said that their salesperson discussed the vehicle’s advanced driver assistance features at length, demonstrated them on a test drive and provided online training. Since used car buyers also had lower levels of awareness, understanding and trust, that suggests used car sellers may be providing information that is not very useful.

New car buyers weren’t all familiar with the features either, although they were more knowledgeable than those who bought used vehicles. Only about two-thirds of new car buyers could provide acceptable descriptions of ACC, for example.

Whether they bought their vehicle new or used, the more buyers knew about the features the more they trusted them.

The results make it clear that buyers of both new and used vehicles need better information about the driver assistance technologies that they’re equipped with. Today’s sophisticated infotainment systems could help do this without relying on individual sellers, who vary in their own understanding of the systems.

For example, the vehicle’s infotainment system could alert drivers to the presence of a feature like blind spot warning, and a short video clip could explain how it works and when it can be useful, similar to the way a phone or computer walks the user through new features after a software update.

“There’s a real opportunity here to think beyond the old paradigm of showroom and owner’s manual,” says Reagan.

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