Modern automotive technology not only helps prevent accidents, but also helps sell cars, says Mark Scarpelli, chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn.

“One area that does not get nearly enough attention in the consumer-demand equation (for new vehicles) is technology and safety, particularly the combination of the two in the form of advanced driver-assistance systems,” he says during a media conference call.

More and more car buyers want vehicles equipped with the latest safety features, such as automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning systems and collision-avoidance technology, says Scarpelli, a Chevrolet, Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram and Kia dealer near Chicago.

“This is a big piece of the overall new-vehicle demand puzzle,” he says. “And in my view, it’s tremendously positive. Not just because it’s helping sales, but because it’s leading to a safer fleet of vehicles on the road every year.”

Yet it’s necessary to raise public awareness, not only about modern technologies offered in today’s new vehicles but also about what they do, says Kelly Nantel, vice president-communication and advocacy for the National Safety Council.

Otherwise, a vehicle doing something on its own could disconcert an unsuspecting driver.  “Thirty-nine percent of people surveyed said they were surprised by something their car did,” Nantel says at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ World Congress Experience in Detroit.

Speaking at a panel discussion entitled “Technology Jungle and Consumer Acceptance,” Nantel tells of her parents recently buying a vehicle equipped with automatic emergency braking. “My mom said, ‘What’s that?’”  

Modern vehicle technology also includes infotainment systems that, unlike automatic safety features, require a certain amount of operational knowledge by the driver.

Infotainment systems often are jam-packed with functionality. Some complex elements can cause many vehicle owners to scratch their heads trying to figure out how to use them.

Then there’s the issue of whether certain gadgetry is necessary in the first place, says panelist Jake Fisher, director-auto testing for Consumer Reports.

A cynic could describe some upscale infotainment features of today as parlor tricks.

“A lot of technology is thrown at consumers, and sometimes the question is, ‘Just because we can do it, should we?’” Fisher says.

He cites a feature on a BMW model that allows an occupant to adjust the sound system’s volume with a wave of the hand. It’s different and is a point of competitive difference, but Fisher questions its usefulness.

The Hartford insurance company partnered with AARP to conduct consumer workshops that familiarize car buyers with modern automotive technology. Such sessions draw a mixed crowd.

“Some of them are people who plan to buy a new vehicle and want to know what (safety-equipment options) to get,” says Jodi Olshevski, executive director-Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence. “Other people attend because they’ve bought a vehicle with technology they want to know how to use.”         

Some consumers read their owner’s manuals to get up to speed with how systems work. Others do so “by trial and error,” Olshevski says.

Some consumers get tutorials from dealership personnel, although not all dealers offer that.

And not all customers are interested in such in-dealership tech talks, says John Nielsen, AAA Automotive’s managing director. “So many dealership customer expectations are centered on convenience, not education.”     

Tech features “need to be intuitive” so learning is self-taught, Fisher says, advising against “relying on the dealer to tell you about it.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com