My car does what? Website addresses new-car confusion

Robert Duffer
Chicago Tribune

One of the first things you’ll notice in a new car — after the high sticker price — is the array of icons.

Tire Pressure Monitoring System icon, which indicates a tire may need to be checked, can look like a bag holding an exclamation point.

There are icons showing hot coffee, or the letter P with a triangle, or a bag holding an exclamation point, or just a series of lines.

And they aren’t just on the center stack where we’d expect them. The iconography has migrated to the steering wheel, seat sides, doors, overhead, even in the back seats.

The icons signify advanced driver-assist systems that improve vehicle safety — but also confuse many drivers.

Two in five car owners, or 40 percent, said their vehicle operated in a manner they did not expect, according to a national survey by University of Iowa’s Public Policy Center.

“The bottom line is that consumers have exposure to many of these technologies, but there is real big uncertainty” about what they do, said Dan McGehee, director of the human factors and vehicle safety research division at the University of Iowa.

The average car on U.S. roads is 11 years old, so new-car buyers likely have not experienced the “avalanche of technologies coming in to new cars,” McGehee said. To clear up the uncertainty, McGehee’s team partnered with the National Safety Council to launch My Car Does What?

The interactive site on advanced vehicle technology is at It features videos, graphics and even games demonstrating the functionality behind the estimated 40 icons being used by automakers. The campaign aims to educate the car-buying public on technology in cars — such as electronic stability control, mandated on all cars since model year 2012 — as well as future technology that is being rolled out now, such as forward collision warning systems that will be in all cars by 2022.

My Car Does What? also urges automakers and policymakers to standardize the terminology and symbols.

My Car Does What? also urges automakers and policymakers to standardize the terminology and symbols, like the icon of squiggly lines behind a car on the button for electronic stability control.

The proliferation of these technologies and the lack of standardization between automakers, who use different names — and different icons — is the source of much of the confusion.

“It’s like the wild west out there,” said Alex Epstein, senior director of digital strategy at the National Safety Council.

“Safety features have different capabilities by manufacturer.”

Cadillac uses Super Cruise, Subaru uses EyeSight, Tesla uses Autopilot, Volvo uses Intellisafe to describe the suite of semi-autonomous driving features that typically — but not always — include some combination of adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist.

The confusion doesn’t end there.

Some automakers signal the systems with a visual warning, such as a flash from the side mirror or glowing icon in the dashboard. Some use audio warnings in the form of a bing, ping, ding or buzz, while still others use haptic warnings, such as a vibrating seat or a steering wheel with a case of the shakes.

For more information, go to