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Innovation offers collision prevention, responsive interiors, strong performance
From on-demand television to self-programming thermostats, we've seen technological innovation make rapid advances into how our homes are designed, and how we spend our leisure time.
Automotive companies are driving innovation on everything from how to unlock your car, to how a car reacts to road conditions during storms. These advances—especially on safety—don't come easy.
The source code it takes to operate a car can rival the length of code in a Boeing 787. So while fully self-driving cars may not be on the lot this year, these latest advances are still rapidly changing how your car works for you. Here's how:
Safety upgrades used to require changes to a vehicle's physical structure— restraints, airbags, and "crumple zones" in the front and rear of the vehicle. The latest advances use software in combination with hardware—cameras, radars, and computers—for a more proactive approach: preventing accidents before they happen.
When equipped with an optional package, the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class uses integrated cameras and radar sensors to hit the brakes, avoiding a pedestrian or a deer dashing across the road. A stopped vehicle can be automatically steered around. If the car is unable to avoid hazard, it can prepare for side-impact collision, using inflatable bladders integrated into the seats to move passengers closer to the middle of the car, away from harm. The company has also installed systems to save your hearing: in advance of an impact, a computer will emit "pink noise" intended to relax your inner ear muscles.
Safety systems aren't just available in the high-end market. The Chevrolet Malibu sedan offers systems that help keep a car in its lane; detect vehicles in the blind spot; alert a driver to an imminent front-end collision; and even bring the car to a halt if the driver does not respond to warnings.
The next level of safety systems will strengthen a car's sense of "vision" and "knowledge," en route to fully autonomous vehicles. Sensors like LIDAR (laser-based radar) and cloud-based car-to-car communications "will add additional layers to safety systems already in operation," says Dr. Michael Hafner, Mercedes' director of driver assistance and active safety. "We have also improved environment perception, through advances in artificial intelligence, to prepare for a time when vehicles will self-drive in complex traffic situations."
The shape and style of cars hold up a mirror to contemporary culture—consider the Jet Age optimism of 1950s cars, or the brash exteriors of the mid-aught's booming economy. The vehicles of the more cautious 2010s have shifted away from flash toward fluidity. Passive aerodynamic aids, instead of tacked on strakes, fit seamlessly into a car's exterior. Intakes around the rear windows, on the new Aston Martin DB11, for example, expel a column of air above the trunk, providing down-force that stabilizes the coupe, which can hit 200 mph.
Inside, the button-riddled dashboards of the past, are gone—replaced by screens mimicking smart phones. The Cadillac Escala concept team created a gently curved screen that responds to touch, voice, and even gesture to change radio stations. "It's a compelling bit of technology, to have gesture control in the car," says Jennifer Kraska, Cadillac's interior advanced design manager. "It's just finding the right application and experience, so it isn't frustrating," she says of the system that is undergoing beta testing.
In the coming years, when settling in behind the wheel, devices may measure an occupant's weight or temperature, and change the seating or thermostat accordingly. Storage bins will fit between the front seat and the console, and hold a mobile phone, or catch coins. Automakers are even rethinking interior lay outs—in some cases, there may be no front or back seat. Expect to see more luxurious materials—crystal glass gears, chestnut wood trims—elevate car interiors.
Electric car manufacturers aren't necessarily investing in these kind of creature comforts, at the moment, mainly to control costs. So, in the short term, the interiors of electric vehicles like the Bolt and The Tesla Model S will remain Spartan.
Adding bigger wheels to enhance road-holding. Beefing up brakes to allow more precise stopping. Attaching larger fuel delivery and exhaust systems to maximize power. Where there are cars, there are gear-heads looking to tweak performance. Today, that customization can be manipulated by twisting a knob, rather than lifting a wrench.
Convertibles like the Chevrolet Corvette and the Ferrari 488 GTS include computer systems that allow drivers to fine tune the vehicle's performance capabilities. Rotate the controller into track mode, and these vehicles can shift gears, firm up suspensions, and blast their exhaust with the force of a Formula One racer. Turn it toward weather, and the car can start as gingerly as a rabbit on a snowy steppe.
The new Ford Focus RS hatchback brings a few YouTube-worthy capabilities to the everyday driver with its exclusive drift mode. Drifting is a type of sustained skid, a fun stunt that requires patience and practice. Take the car to a racetrack, and drift mode can be engaged. Focus' on-board computers feed power to the wheels in way that makes drifting simple. Tires squeal. Rubber burns. Smiles ensue.