“Self-driving,” and even worse “Autopilot,” is pretty misleading term. Right now, in 2020, the most advanced systems are only capable of a handful of functions, none of which mean that you can check your inbox while behind the wheel. Even Cadillac’s Super Cruise, which allows you to take your hands off the wheel for minutes at a time, will stop working if you look away from the road.
But once you temper those Jetsons expectations, modern safety systems are really impressive. And if you live with them long enough, they become indispensable. But for years, this tech has been swathed in luxury—there’s a reason Cadillacs have one of the very best autonomous systems.
But Subaru is finally bringing this tech to the people. Its new models have automatic braking if you’re about to hit a car or pedestrian, automatic steering to keep the car in its lane, and cruise control that adjusts to traffic. None of those are new, but it’s remarkable to have these things standard have on a $23,000 new car.
Subaru calls its hands-free tech EyeSight, and it’s included in every 2020 Legacy (which we tested), Forester, Outback, and Ascent, and optional for the all others, except specific WRX trims. The system works on the same basic principles as other autonomous safety systems: onboard cameras scan for visual indicators like lane markers and other cars, while embedded sensors feel for nearby objects. All that external information feeds into the car’s software brain and generates a safe path forward.
EyeSight’s priority is to prevent crashes. Let’s say the car ahead of you unexpectedly stops. With only milliseconds between safety and disaster, the system senses that the human in the driver’s seat isn’t hitting the brakes, and predicts a collision, with warning sounds and flashing visuals. It then hits the brakes, either making the crash less severe, or preventing the collision entirely. You can get the same magic while in reverse, but it costs extra. Just one experience in either direction will make you an automatic braking acolyte.
Subaru also sells an optional Driver Monitoring System that uses infrared cameras to watch if your head droops from exhaustion, or if you look away from the road for too long. While not as essential or precise as the other tech, it works and can help keep you awake during long drives.
There’s more EyeSight than keeping occupants alive—though that would be enough. It also makes driving less tiring by allowing you to offload some of the menial work. For example, lane keep assist uses those cameras to detect visible lane markings to keep the vehicle centered while adaptive cruise control (ACC, a tech that goes back to the 90’s) keeps your distance from the cars ahead of you.
At highway speeds, you’ll lose ground to people merging into the safety gap between you and the next car up. But in slow traffic, you can drive for hours without touching the pedals. With the exception of the lane-keeping system, which can occasionally jolt you, EyeSight brakes and accelerates as smoothly as if you were riding shotgun in a Johnny Cab.
For much more money, a new Mercedes-Benz or Tesla do all of this better in one specific way. With EyeSight, at least for now, if ACC brings you to a complete stop, you have to tap the gas pedal or hit the Resume button on the steering wheel to start moving again. Other ACC systems will resume driving without any input. It’s a small, but appreciable distinction that, hopefully, Subaru can bring to all its cars soon.
But with any ACC, tedious drives are less draining. And even small autonomous features, like high-beams that shut off automatically when the cameras detect oncoming headlights, add up to conveniences that save your energy. Once you get used to all of it, it’s pretty tough to go back. But the story of the automobile is a story of constant innovation. Here’s hoping that systems like EyeSight will be as ubiquitous as three-point seat belts.
One day we’ll wonder how we ever lived without it.