These 5 relatively recent innovations have forever changed the automobile.

The Dawning of New Technology

By Jeff Voth
The technology in today’s cars is something most of us take for granted, but much of it is relatively new. In fact, it’s only in the last 20 years that some of the most significant advancements have taken place.

Go back another 20 years and the idea of wearing a seatbelt was generally unheard of. Flying through the air in the back seat over a bump in the road was something we enjoyed during Sunday afternoon drives. Nowadays, acting with such reckless abandon would cause you to lose your driver’s license, or worse. In retrospect, perhaps the good old days weren’t always so good.

When it comes to technology, I am continuously amazed at what the human mind can imagine and ultimately devise. How did someone think up antilock brakes? Who was it that convinced a carmaker that batteries could be just as effective at powering a vehicle as gasoline? Here are several of the current technologies we use on a daily basis and some of the history behind turning dreams into reality.

Hybrids

Toyota Prius

2000 Toyota Prius

When it went on sale in 1997 in Japan, the Toyota Prius became the world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle. Today, the Prius sells in over 70 markets. It took until 2008 to achieve 1 million sales, but by capitalizing on this momentum, the Prius surpassed the 2 million sales mark in 2010.

Designed in California, the Prius made its worldwide debut at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show. Designated NHW10, it seemed relevant for the Japanese marketplace, but less so for North America. Upon arrival here, the Prius offered more power, seating for five, and standard air conditioning. This change reflected the need for American consumers to travel greater distances with increased seating capacity.

Today, the Toyota Prius features a 1.6-liter, 16-valve VVT-i four-cylinder engine and a permanent magnet AC synchronous motor. Net output is rated at 134 hp. Matched to an electronic CVT transmission, the motor delivers 153 ft-lbs of torque to the front wheels.

The Prius has also inspired specialty automakers to stretch the boundaries of what we might consider possible. Porsche, for example, introduced the 918 Spyder at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show. With one stroke of the design pen, it challenged the status quo on what defines a sports car, and what defines hybrid technology.

Anti-lock Braking System (ABS)

The first use of antilock braking technology dates back to the airplanes of 1929. Motorcycles were next in the late 1950’s, and both Chrysler and General Motors worked on various applications throughout the early ’70’s. By and large, however, it was the joint efforts of Bosch and Mercedes-Benz in 1978 that first applied ABS to a mass-market vehicle, introducing it on the S-Class sedan.

ABS works by monitoring slippage rates at all four wheels. If the system senses one or more wheels are rotating slower than the others, it backs off brake pressure to the affected wheel. Should it detect one or more wheels are rotating significantly faster, it adds brake pressure, causing the wheels to slow their rotation.

The original systems used by automakers provided uncomfortable feedback through the brake pedal to advise the driver ABS was active and slowing down was probably a good idea. Today, most ABS systems work seamlessly with additional behind-the-scenes technologies, bringing your vehicle to a controlled stop in almost all driving conditions. Long gone are the days of having to pump the brakes rapidly to stop on ice or snow.

Supplemental Restraint Systems (SRS)

Airbags

Supplemental Restrain Systems

Airbags, as we commonly refer to them, are basically large flexible envelopes designed to protect occupants in a vehicle during a serious crash. The first airbags were enclosed within the steering wheel for driver protection and on the top of the dash to shield the front seat passenger. Not always popular when they were first introduced, they quickly grew in favor as more and more buyers realized the important safety element they provide, which is reduced fatality rates in accidents.

Today, airbags are placed strategically throughout even the least expensive automobiles. The steering wheel is still a primary area of concern in an accident, but so too are side impacts and rear end collisions, a situation the first airbags were never designed to address. Side-curtains, knee airbags, rear seat and side seat airbags are all making their way into the collective mindset of what is required. Mandated as standard equipment in 1995, it didn’t take us long to realize it is much better to face the sudden impact of an envelope filled with gas rather than the hard surface of a steering wheel or shattered side window.

Drive-, Steer-, and Brake-by-Wire

In general, it requires numerous mechanical parts to input a request from the steering wheel, brake or gas pedal and have it affect the performance or attitude of a vehicle on the road. By-wire technology takes the mechanical components out of the equation, making operation simpler, faster, and more reliable with electronic controls.

The advantages are important. With no moving parts, weight savings are substantial and vehicle design can be dramatically altered without the need to compensate for mechanical controls.

Disadvantages can include less sensitive steering feel, a dull-feeling brake pedal, or reduced throttle sensitivity as automakers seek the middle ground in the low to mid-range of engine performance. The cost of a vehicle is also certain to increase as electronics demand increased complexity and constant development. Still, the overall effect is positive with the desired goal of control being in the hands of the driver aided by computers capable of making necessary changes in milliseconds.

Electronic Stability Control (ESC)

Cadillac CTS

2003 Cadillac CTS

Mercedes-Benz, along with BMW, was at it again in 1987 developing the first traction control system for automobiles. Sophisticated for the time, it was designed to add traction while accelerating. Unlike today’s systems, however, it did not help with steering and overall stability in a corner.

Electronic Stability Control determines the driver’s intended direction by monitoring steering wheel angle and comparing it to the desired direction via lateral acceleration, yaw rate and wheel speed. ESC only works when needed, applying the brakes at any of the four corners to return the vehicle to its intended direction. In most cases, ESC will also reduce engine power and employ the transmission to slow the vehicle and regain control.

ESC was never intended to replace responsible driving habits. There are, in fact, instances where it may not affect control at all, such as hydroplaning on overly wet road surfaces. But used in conjunction with ABS and Traction Control, ESC offers dynamic performance and enhanced control under almost all driving conditions. So much so that Toyota has included it as part of their STAR Safety System, which is standard equipment on all Toyota vehicles for 2011.

Technology continues to drive the auto industry forward at a blistering pace. What was once considered only a dream, has suddenly become reality in many of the least expensive vehicles we drive today. It would seem there is nothing a little human ingenuity can’t resolve.

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One Response to “These 5 relatively recent innovations have forever changed the automobile.”

  1. Katrin, pkw Says:

    Katrin, pkw…

    […]These 5 relatively recent innovations have forever changed the automobile. « My View From Las Vegas[…]…

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