Getting to Know Your Vehicle’s Exterior Sensors

As much time as you spend taking care of your car, it spends a great deal of time taking care of you. And I am not just talking about getting you from point A to point B in a timely fashion. I am talking about all of the many ways it keeps you safe on the road.

Have you taken a newer car on a test drive lately? How safe did you feel? Very? It’s no surprise. Many vehicle makes and models out there now come equipped with advanced safety features in the way of exterior sensors. These exterior radars and sensors alert you when objects creep into your blind spots. Depending on the type of system, your car might also apply the brakes on your behalf. Whoa, Nelly!

These advanced safety features are considered add-ons for the majority of makes and models out there and are marketed under various trade names. This means each system’s capabilities will vary by manufacturer and model. For example, right off the top there is Acura’s Collision Mitigation Brake System, Cadillac’s Automatic Collision Preparation and Volvo’s Collision Warning with Full Auto Brake and Pedestrian Detection, which are just a few options out there.

More and more car makers are rushing to add such features to their fleets. As such, as of 2015, only vehicles that have a front-crash warning system with automatic braking features can be named an IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus.

By now you’ve probably heard of self-driving cars. These cars are still years away from becoming a reality, but those video clips you’ve seen of a car parallel parking itself? That is today’s reality. There are a lot of things at play that are making this possible—beyond the front and rear cameras you might already be familiar with. The Vehicles Have Eyes!

Let’s take a closer look at a vehicle’s exterior sensors:

 vehicle exterior sensors

Blind Spot Detection

In general, blind spot warning systems make use of radars or cameras that scan the areas of the road you cannot see. They see what’s missing from your mirrors. Primarily they are looking for other vehicles. When they detect one, an icon in or near the appropriate side-view mirror lights-up and/or provides a warning sound. You’d think that would get overwhelming, but the system really only alerts you/brakes for you when you turn your signal on in order to move into an oncoming vehicle’s way.

 Cross Traffic Alert

Slightly different than blind spot detection, cross traffic alert, both at the front and the back of the vehicle, involves radar sensors on both sides of front and the rear bumper. As you throw your vehicle into reverse, cross traffic alert kicks into high-gear, scanning for hazards coming at you from the sides. Mostly handy for parking lots and driveways, cross traffic alert will alert you by blinking lights on the dashboard or sounding a short tone.

 Lane Change Assistance

Much like blind spot detection, lane change assistance uses radar sensors to actively monitor the blind spots at the rear of the vehicle. When you are travelling at a certain speed, lane change assistance kicks in when it senses a vehicle rapidly approaching you. It’s also like cross traffic alert—the major difference being the speed at which you’re both travelling (fast!)

 Lane Departure Warning

You know how your smartphone’s camera can detect things like human faces? Lane change departure technology, also known as lane keeping assist (LKA), works the same way: a camera and detection/processing software is used to identify lane markers and monitor how far away you are from them. Drift near that white or yellow line without signaling and a warning sound will go off or a slight vibration of the steering wheel will occur.

Parking Assistance

Remember learning how to drive? Wasn’t parking pretty much the worst of it? I suppose that’s why parking assistance has been around for longer than the other external sensors on this list. Parking assistance relies on proximity sensors that alert the driver to obstacles while parking. The systems use either electromagnetic or ultrasonic sensors that detect objects—not speed.

 Backup Cameras

Backup cameras generally fall into the parking assistance category. When the vehicle is put into reverse, the camera at the back, usually above the license plate, is activated. In some models, coloured lines are displayed on the video screen on the dashboard, which help direct you into the stall. With the addition of such features, you might find yourself having to re-learn the whole parking process.


Instead of using a guide, why not allow someone to take over control? Self-parking vehicles use automatic parking systems that detect objects around the vehicle using a variety of sensors. It then times what it sees with a computer that measures timing and distance. The sensors transmit the info, while the computer receives it.

Other systems use cameras or radars to view obstacles and measure the parking space size and distance from the roadside. It’s all meant to relieve the anxiety many people have over parallel parking. Feeling relieved yet?

Adaptive Cruise Control

If the only thing stopping you from using your car’s cruise control is how quickly you seem to catch up to other vehicles (it’s OK, you can admit it), then you’ll love adaptive cruise control. Adaptive cruise control uses sensors to detect when the vehicle ahead of you is getting too close. Adaptive cruise control automatically adjusts your speed rather than completely killing the cruise control.

Adaptive Headlights

Now this one is a bit of an obvious solution to a blinding problem: Headlights that move in correspondence with your steering wheel! With adaptive headlights, your pathway is automatically illuminated as efficiently as possible so there is need for your high-beams.

Side Impact

Side-impact crash sensors are either located in the engine control unit, the door, the doorsill, or in between the front and rear doors. They aren’t sensing things in their path, rather, they are responsible for activating the vehicle’s side airbags in the event of a crash. The science is such that the sensors can tell the difference between a crash and a sudden brake or a gentle “tap”.

Collision Avoidance

Also known as crash avoidance, collision avoidance is just one component of a vehicle’s front crash prevention system that includes many of the systems we are talking about here, such as auto-braking, lane departure warning, lane departure prevention, and blind spot detection. In the case of collision avoidance, the sensors are at the front of the vehicle and warn the driver of obstacles.

All of the exterior sensors found on today’s newer vehicles are meant to protect you, your vehicle and other drivers. And with distracted driving cases on the rise, they are making a big difference out there in doing exactly what they are supposed to: saving lives and reducing vehicle write-offs and insurance claims.

 Two Types of Systems

A vehicle with some or many of the features listed here can either alert you to the problem, or alert you AND act on your behalf:

  • Forward collision warning systems refer to exterior sensor systems that alert you when your vehicle is about to crash/hit something, but it doesn’t slow down or stop the vehicle.
  • Crash prevention systems, on the other hand, will slow down or stop your vehicle when it senses hazards. Better yet, there are hybrid systems out there that combine features of each system.

What’s It Going to Cost Me?

As these types of systems are considered add-ons, they can raise the price of your new vehicle by thousands of dollars. The plus side is that because they are considered added safety features, you might see a reduction in your insurance premiums and have more peace of mind on the road.

 Are They Worth It?

This type of advanced technology is increasing the safety of our cars and also boosting the confidence of drivers as roads become even more congested. At Searles, we believe it is difficult to put a price tag on all that.

And, as with the prices of flat screen TV’s have, the price for such fancy features is likely to drop in the coming years. In fact, in March 2016, 20 automakers representing more than 99% of the U.S. auto market committed to making automatic emergency braking a standard feature on virtually all new cars no later than 2022.

 How About Repairs?

Vehicles with complete crash prevention systems are still relatively in their infancy. Therefore, a lot of them all still under factory warranty, which has so far made it difficult for consumers to gauge just how costly they are to repair.

When it comes to repairing your vehicle’s exterior sensors, you need to make sure your auto mechanic is technologically advanced enough to know how to run diagnostics on all of these sensors. At Searles in Victoria, we have a highly knowledgeable staff of experts when it comes to correcting issues related to a car’s computer and sensors.

Book an appointment to come and see us if you’re experiencing any trouble with your vehicle’s exterior sensors.


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