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14 Car Acronyms Drivers Should Know

Before buying a new set of wheels, it’s important to understand the lingo

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​Shopping for a car today can be overwhelming for several reasons — from low inventory and supply-chain issues to high sticker prices. And if you haven’t been in the market for a while, you may feel like the process requires a whole new vocabulary: Modern automotive technology has brought with it a slew of acronyms that can be a challenge to grasp but are important to understand before you step into the showroom or weigh options online. So before test-driving new cars, a first step is to decode the terminology. ​

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Auto power supply 

When it comes to a car’s power supply, everything used to be focused on the engine. But now there are four important terms to learn.

1. ICE: Internal combustion engine — yup, the one you grew up with. And while everyone is talking about electric cars these days, don’t count out the gasoline models. Ronald Montoya, senior consumer advice editor for, says, “It’s not a dinosaur. It’s going to be around for a while.”​

2. HEV: Hybrid electric vehicle. The Toyota Prius was the first popular hybrid, meaning the car runs on gas and electricity (the electricity is used to get the car started or assist in acceleration), but these days there are plenty of manufacturers. Montoya says it’s a great choice for people who want great mileage but don’t want to worry about charging a fully electric car. ​

3. BEV: Battery electric vehicle. This is an electric car in the purest sense. Yes, you’ll save a lot of money driving past the gas pump, but Montoya points out the generally higher sticker price, advising consumers to “compare the full cost of the vehicle, not just the price of gas.”​

4. PHEV: Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. It has both a gas motor and a plug-in for charging the electric engine. The battery will run the car for 15 to 30 miles, and then the gas motor will kick in. Montoya points out, “You don’t ever have to worry about being stranded running out of battery because the gas engine will back you up.”​

Safety systems 

​Terms used to describe safety systems in a car fall under one big acronym: ADAS, or advanced driver assistance systems.

The exact terminology for different features can vary from one car manufacturer to the next — a challenge for auto buyers. “For example, there’s a general understanding of traditional cruise control,” says Stan Caldwell, executive director of Carnegie Mellon’s Traffic21 Institute. “The different names attached to these new features is causing some confusion to consumers.”

Caldwell hopes car manufacturers adopt a common language to make it easier for shoppers. Until that happens, it’s good to know these generic terms:

5. ACC: Adaptive cruise control. It does more than just pay attention to car speed, it also monitors the car ahead of you so that you don’t get too close. Toyota, for example, calls this Dynamic Radar Cruise Control. ​

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6. AEB: Automatic emergency braking. Whatever the object, AEB will help bring your car to a stop so you don’t have a collision. Honda’s version has a complicated name: Collision Mitigation Braking System. ​

7. FCW: Forward collision warning. This is similar to AEB, but it simply delivers a loud warning that something is in your way. Chevrolet calls it Forward Collision Alert. ​

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8. BSW: Blind spot warning. This lets you know when there’s something close to the rear of the car in the traditional blind spots. ​

9. LKA: Lane keeping assist. This technology robotically moves the steering wheel to keep a car from drifting out of its lane. In most cars this technology will pull you back several times before suggesting that you need to take control — or take a break. ​

10. LDW: Lane departure warning. Similar to LKA, this provides a warning if your car starts to wander. ​

11. PD: Pedestrian detection. This technology could lower the number of pedestrians killed each year (which jumped 4.8 percent to 6,721 in 2020, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association). It combines emergency braking with evasive maneuvers. ​

12. AES: Automatic emergency steering. There are times when emergency braking isn’t enough. This gives your car the ability to swerve around or away from an obstacle. ​

13. RSA: Road sign assist. You might not have noticed the road sign, but your car can, adjusting the way it’s traveling based on the message it reads. ​

14. RCTW: Rear cross traffic warning. You’re backing out of a parking space when someone comes whizzing by. This could prevent you from hitting their car. There’s also Rear AEB, which could stop your car automatically. ​

For the moment, you’ll likely have to pay extra to get most of these technologies in your car. But Caldwell says they often pay off in the long run. “This is not a choice between whether the cost is worth the safety benefits,” he says. “Research shows this both saves lives and saves money.”​

And if they sound an awful lot like steppingstones to autonomous vehicles, that’s because they are. As Caldwell says, “We’ll look back one day and not realize when we quit driving.”​

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