From roll-down windows to power sliding doors, anti-lock brakes to 360˚ parking assist cameras, car technology has continued to advance and evolve in ways that early automakers could only have imagined. Throughout history, the automobile has had an incalculable effect on human society. It’s changed the very way we approach daily life—a case you could argue is true of the computer as well. So, what does it mean when we combine these two exceptional inventions? Well, we may not be commuting like The Jetsons. But automotive innovation has made some truly incredible achievements in performance, efficiency, safety and—now more than ever—entertainment and data connectivity.
Give The People What They Want
Like most great ideas, the concept of the automobile took the form of a living thing. It evolved over time through the contributions of many thinkers, tinkers, inventors and engineers. There have been imaginings of self-moving transportation for as long as people have needed to travel. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s and turn of the twentieth century that the automobile as we know it, really began to take shape. And perhaps most remarkably, it wasn’t until this time that the automobile changed from being the rich man’s plaything to a truly useful tool and financially-sound investment.
Henry Ford’s introduction of the simple, affordable, and easily mass-produced Model T in 1908 made the automobile truly accessible. Because, really, what good is revolutionary technology if no one can afford to use it? By landing in the hands of the Average Joe, the automobile effectively cemented its position as not only a historical achievement, but also an accessory to daily life.
Early Car Technology Was Cooler Than You Think
It wasn’t long before other manufacturers realized the potential gold mine in front of them. They began furiously building and rebuilding every aspect of the car, creating an entirely new form of industry. And yes, the thought of late nineteenth century car “technology” might seem cute by today’s standards. But early cars really did experience some exciting and lasting innovations.
The year 1919 welcomed the introduction of self-starting engines, completely eliminating the need for pesky handcranking. The 1920s ushered in hard-body covered cars, making rainy-day travel a dry possibility. And by the 1930s, most vehicles were sporting progressive amenities such as automatic transmissions, four-wheel brakes, heaters, and radios. These advancements showed motorists that a self-propelled horseless carriage could be comfortable, convenient, and frankly, pretty cool.
Interestingly, these early decades also saw the pivotal shift from electric to gasoline-powered vehicles. That’s right, internal combustion replaced electric propulsion. Guess everything really does come back in fashion, huh Tesla? Early EV producers faced much the same problems as their modern counterparts. Initial costs were lower for gas vehicles due to more variety, fast production, and helpful financing options. And throw in the promise of quick and easy refueling, thanks to a (naively) perceived endless supply of oil, and EVs didn’t stand much of a chance.
Automotive innovation continued to wax and wane throughout the following decades. But some notable achievements can be found in flashing turn signals, coil spring suspension, power steering, and the introduction of the indomitable Jeep® and the economical Volkswagen Beetle. However, it wasn’t until the late 1960s and ’70s that modern car technology really began to take off. As federal regulations for safety and emissions came on the scene, American automakers had to respond with clever new ways to create power and speed, without breaking the rules.
These new eras welcomed a modern attitude of conservation and safety consciousness. And much to their dismay, auto manufacturers were forced to abandon their “form over function” approach to making cars. Clunky gas guzzlers hidden under flashy exteriors no longer fit the bill when the government was applying the squeeze to reduce pollution. During this time, efficiency-minded advancements such as positive crankcase ventilation, catalytic converters, and the first iterations of electronic fuel injection systems developed. And some novelty additions made an appearance too. Power windows and the 8-track Cartridge player as well as its progeny, the cassette player were introduced too. (We don’t have to tell you the effect that had on portable music.)
This more responsible approach to car-making led to a revitalization of the industry in the 1980s. Every step in the process was assessed and reorganized. Design, engineering, manufacturing, warehousing, and sales were all restructured to pivot the industry in a direction of safer and more efficient vehicle production. Airbags became standard. Electronic fuel injection finally started replacing carburetors. Anti-lock brakes were introduced. And the seeds of on-the-go digital media were planted in dashboard CD players and the popularization of the car phone.
The 1990s and early 2000s propelled even more radical changes within the industry. With the increased presence of on-board computer diagnostics and federal pressure to explore alternative sources of fuel, car technology began to take on some semblance of what it is today. And that fire of ingenuity was set truly ablaze by the ever-growing delight of—and eventual obsession with—everyone’s favorite piece of tech: the cellphone.
Often unknown, but perhaps one of the biggest avenues for computer-assisted car technology occurred on May 1, 2000 when President Bill Clinton ordered the cessation of GPS Selective Availability. This presidential order gave budding entrepreneurs the satellite info they needed to provide increasingly accurate pinpointed locations for their developing electronic navigation systems. This simple swipe of a pen allowed for the innovation of such items as your dash-mounted Magellan navigator or the WAZE app on your iPhone.
So, What’s Next?
Today’s automobiles are becoming increasingly complex machines. They’re made up of supremely complicated sensors and software protocols, all in an effort to simplify the lives of their passengers. What does all this tech mean for modern drivers? And what could possibly come next?
Stick with us as we unpack this topic further in Part 2: Future Car Technology and What to Expect!