Technology in cars helps drivers in winter conditions.

Technology in cars helps drivers in winter conditions.

Today is the first day of winter, and while some Iowa drivers may curse the return of winter weather, one expert says many of us already have helpful technology in our cars, except we don’t always understand how it works.

Dan McGehee, director of the Transportation and Vehicle Safety Program at the University of Iowa, says automatic braking systems, or ABS, have been around 20 years, yet it’s a very misunderstood safety feature.

“Most cars have that technology onboard, but it’s still something that takes us by surprise,” McGehee says. “We feel that buzzing, that thumping sound and a lot of people release their foot, some people still pump the brakes. The main thing you need to remember is to hold that brake down firmly, even when it’s buzzing, and know that those brakes are working for you.”

Many newer vehicles are also equipped with traction control, which helps you accelerate without spinning out on slippery surfaces like snow and ice. McGehee says the most exciting vehicle safety technology to come down the road in years is called electronic stability control. “That’s where the vehicle senses you might be losing control, like going around a corner,” McGehee says. “It automatically adjusts the wheels, the braking of individual wheels, to increase the stability of the vehicle and prevent loss-of-control incidents.”

Something many higher-end cars have that’s starting to migrate to lower-priced vehicles is adaptive headlights. They can adapt to changing roadway conditions to help illuminate the roadway during the long winter nights. “The headlights can actually begin to sort of look around the corners, they can sense when a car is coming upon you and dim the lights,” McGehee says. “Lighting technology is really getting much more sophisticated.”

The University of Iowa and the National Safety Council created a website called, “My Car Does What“, which helps to educate motorists about new vehicle technologies. It features everything above, in addition to things like back-up cameras, blind spot monitors and lane departure warnings.