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9 Things You Didn’t Know a Car (or Truck) Could Do

High-tech options can do the parking, power your home or share keys in new ways

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​Today’s cars are loaded with bells and whistles. You might find the pings and chirps annoying, but behind the sounds are a lot of surprising features and options. Some make driving safer and less stressful. Others might solve some tricky problems — tight parking spaces and power outages are on that list. ​​

Features are often so numerous that dealers might not have a chance to show new owners where they are or how they work (and they might not know themselves). So here are nine things you might not know that new vehicles could do. ​

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1. Digital key sharing​​

​Even the simplest task — unlocking your car — has gone high-tech. Digital keys use your smartphone to unlock the car. Using an app from the automaker, your phone acts as the key fob. Some systems require that the phone touch the car door handle, but then you can drive off without the need for a traditional key.​​

Better still, you can send or share digital keys remotely. If one of your kids needs to borrow your car, but you’re not home to give them the keys, no problem. You can send a digital key to another user’s smartphone so they can operate the car. You can even set a time or date limit on the key, so no one can “borrow” your car later. Digital keys with a variety of features, and in some cases monthly subscription charges, are available from Hyundai, Volvo, BMW and many others.​​

2. Hands- and feet-free driving ​​

Autonomous or self-driving cars for the masses are still a ways off, but the next best thing is available for some: hands- and feet-free driving. Cadillacs were the first vehicles to offer the feature, which General Motors calls Super Cruise. Drivers can choose to let the vehicle take control on more than 400,000 miles of specific highways that have been mapped using high-resolution LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) systems. GM’s version is available as an option on models ranging from the Escalade SUV to the tiny Chevy Bolt EUV. It only works in the U.S. and Canada but not on city or suburban streets. The driver still has to pay attention (an infrared camera checks that you’re not distracted), but Super Cruise, although limited, definitely helps reduce driver fatigue on long road trips.​​

Similar to GM’s Super Cruise is Ford’s BlueCruise. It’s a newer system that covers fewer miles of highway. There’s also the much-hyped Tesla Autopilot; however, Tesla’s system, like many others, requires that drivers keep their hands on the wheel at all times. ​​

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3. Power for your home ​​

An early promise of electric vehicles was that their huge batteries could one day be used to keep the lights on at home during a blackout. That day finally arrived with the Ford F-150 Lightning pickup. Using an option called Ford Intelligent Backup Power, the truck can essentially reverse power — instead of charging at home, it can send power to your house from its battery. A fully charged F-150 could power the average U.S. home for three to 10 days (depending on your energy use), essentially replacing the need for a separate backup generator.​

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​The F-150 Lightning option requires a professionally installed home system, which costs $3,895. More EVs are expected to offer similar options, including so-called bidirectional systems that can feed power back into the grid during brownouts. ​​

4. Act like a virtual assistant ​​

Sure, you can plug your smartphone into the dashboard to use apps while you drive, but having Amazon’s Alexa built into the car is even better. Models, from Audi to Jeep, have Alexa in the dash. The complete set of supported Alexa skills varies from car to car, but typically you can ask for information including fuel levels and when your next oil change is due. Many cars use Alexa in conjunction with their own app to remotely start (warm the vehicle up on frigid days or cool it down on scorchers). Consider using Alexa commands from your car to control devices at your house. One example: The virtual assistant can turn on outdoor security lights at home before you arrive. Some auto models are slated to have Google Assistant built in. ​​

5. Prod drowsy drivers​​

A long drive can trigger a bout of fatigue. Of course, if you feel yourself tiring, you should take a break, but many of us don’t realize we’re getting drowsy until it’s too late. Fortunately, car companies have been working on driver drowsiness detection (DDD) systems. Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo all have drowsy driver alerts. Some, including the one from BMW, monitor the amount of time you’ve been driving and suggest taking a break by displaying a coffee cup icon on the dash. Other systems work at highway speeds and can monitor the driver’s eyes or look for micro-corrections in the steering input indicating that the driver may be falling asleep. ​​

6. Make headlights smarter​​

Everyone knows how annoying — and dangerous — it is to be blinded by a pair of oncoming high beams. Smart headlights can take care of that. Many car models have an additional switch that enables a smart high-beam setting. When you select this mode, the car’s headlights remain in standard mode on city streets, but when you hit a dark country road, it automatically kicks on the high beams so you can spot any hazards. If another vehicle comes your way, the sensor detects the oncoming light and automatically kicks the headlights down to standard mode — and back up again after the other car has passed. Coming soon: adaptive driving beam headlights that reduce the brightness to just the beam that hits other drivers, while keeping maximum illumination set on the rest of the road.​​

7. Provide a better view ​​

Rearview mirrors have also gone high-tech. Once exclusively available in Cadillacs, an LCD screen is used in many cars in place of a rearview mirror; together with a camera mounted in the back, the screen can give an unobstructed view of what’s behind you when you’re driving. That means you can fill the rear seat with grandchildren or gear, and never worry about not being able to see what’s behind you during a lane change. In fact, because the camera is outside the car, it gives you a wider, blind-spot-free view that’s not possible with conventional mirrors. Video mirror options are available on several Toyota and Lexus models. If you choose this optional feature, then find you prefer a regular mirror view, you can switch back from video mode with the push of a button.​​​

8. Remote control parking​​

Cars can’t drive themselves (yet), but a few can get you in and out of a tight parking spot. Models from manufacturers such as Hyundai and BMW offer remote control or remote parking. To use it, drivers position the vehicle in front of the spot they want, hop out and close the door. By pressing and holding the parking button on the key fob, drivers can watch as the car wiggles its way into the tight spot. It’s a great trick if you have a snug garage. And it can save you from trying to squeeze into the car yourself when someone parks too close to you at the supermarket. To get out? Just remotely start the car, and press the key fob to have it pull out of the spot before you get in. (Note: This feature generally only works on perpendicular parking spots and with the driver standing nearby.) ​​

9. Protect your privacy​​

All this car technology may make you worry about your privacy and security. For example, if you’re not parking the car yourself, a garage attendant or valet could access all the private information in your dashboard. To prevent this, most carmakers have added a “valet mode” that locks the screen. In some cars, you’ll find the setting within the menu options on the system’s dashboard; just set a private code to turn it on and off. Other vehicles, such as Hyundais, allow you to use the car’s smartphone app to turn on valet mode, which will also track the car’s mileage after you’ve handed over the keys. Think of it as your own personal “Stop Ferris Bueller” mode. ​

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close up of a gold car parked near the water during sunset

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Shop for a car with safety features you want. Buyers can get a free AARP Smart Driver course.

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