Technology keeping you safe behind the wheel

An interview with Progressive’s vehicle-safety technology expert

As part of his job on Progressive’s R&D team, Mike Doerfler is a board member of the Highway Loss Data Institute, or HLDI. As such, Mike enjoys insight into vehicle-safety technology trends that relatively few outside the auto industry and media have.

In early 2014, for instance, he attended Continental’s Winter Technology show—an event for OEMs, suppliers, and governmental organizations. There, on a test track, he had the opportunity to drive—or in some instances be driven by—vehicles equipped with next-generation safety technologies. He brings insight from experiences like this back to Progressive, where it influences our product design.

I recently asked Mike a few questions about the current state of car safety technology, how it plays into what we pay for car insurance, and what trends he sees coming down the pike.

What are some of the new safety features manufacturers are putting on cars today?

Mike: “We’re seeing a lot of new features starting to become available, but most just haven’t become common yet.

“Electronic stability control has been mandatory on all new cars since model year 2012. So, it’s on a growing number of cars on the road, and on many of the cars we insure. Other available, but less common, options include adaptive headlights, forward collision warning systems—some that will actually brake the car, and lane departure warnings.”

These are optional features, and I’ll pay more for a car if I choose them. So, will I pay less for insurance because they make the car safer?

Mike: “Of the technologies I mentioned, Progressive is starting to lower rates for vehicles with stability control, adaptive headlights, and forward collision warning with braking. We’re introducing that on a state-by-state basis.”

So, why don’t we offer lower rates on other technologies that IIHS/HLDI has found prevent accidents?

Mike: “We only use our own claims data to calculate a rate, and we simply don’t have enough data on many of these technologies to translate the added safety into a dollar amount.

“Most technologies—safety features are no exception—are initially proven on the test track. And, it can take years for us to understand fully the value of a safety feature on the road. We don’t have the claims data until we have the technology in a significant number of cars. The technology isn’t in a significant number of cars until it’s inexpensive enough for dealers to sell it and consumers to buy it. So, it’s sort of a long evolution.”

You’ve had the opportunity to see what manufacturers are working on—the next generation of safety technology. What will we see in the near future?

Mike: “I think we’re going to see the technology I listed earlier become more and more available on non-luxury vehicles. The challenge is the cost—many of the core technologies of these features are things like expensive cameras, radar or lasers. But over time, the manufacturers are finding ways to get the cost down to levels that make these safety features feasible for less expensive cars.”

What about driverless cars? Will the day come when we get where we want to go without ever touching the steering wheel?

Mike: “I’m pretty skeptical we’ll see them widespread any time in the near future. I think the obstacles to wide adoption are bigger than some promoters want us to believe.

“I’m more excited about less ‘sexy’ technology—that’ll be much more feasible to implement in the near future—that’ll help people be better, safer drivers. I think we’ll see technologies that help a driver keep his eyes on the road during a long, boring drive; warn a driver and stop the car if it senses trouble ahead; and keep a driver off the road altogether if he’s somehow impaired.

“Humans are horrible at repetition, but great at judgment. Machines are great at repetition but not very good at judgment. The technologies that are going to make a difference sooner than later are the ones that help us with the repetitive aspects of driving.”

Shopping this winter?

The winter months are prime for car shopping. If you’re one of the countless Americans making their way into a showroom or car show in early 2015, tell us, how important are safety features to you? Would you pay more for some of these features? How much? And, which ones? Did you even know some of these features now exist?

And here’s one more thing. Before you talk to a salesperson, check out the Progressive Car Shopping Service. You could save time, money and effort with upfront, guaranteed pricing on new and used cars from dealers in your area.

Car safety technology at a glance
Car shoppers have a growing variety of safety technology to choose from. Here are a few of the options* we’re starting to see on the roads.

Adaptive cruise control uses radar or other sensing technology to detect when your car is getting too close to the car in front of it, and slows your car to maintain a safe distance.

Adaptive headlights detect the speed and direction of your car and aim the headlights up to 15 degrees off center to help optimize your visibility around curves.

Electronic stability control detects if your car’s path is different than what you intend (i.e., you’re skidding), and uses a combination of automated braking and throttle control to correct the path.

Forward collision warning/avoidance detects if a crash is imminent, and either warns you to act or automatically stops the car.

Lane departure warning alerts you if your car begins to move out of its lane, unless you’ve activated your turn signal.

*These are generic labels for these technologies; most car manufacturers “brand” these with unique names … but the technology is the same.