Car technology that went from being revolutionary to mainstream


How long will it be until driverless cars dominate British roads? Not long, if the big tech firms developing them have their way.  

Deep-pocketed technology firms including Google’s parent group Alphabet, taxi app Uber and electric car pioneer Tesla are all involved in their own autonomous driving projects, while the big car brands are also busy developing their own systems.

History shows that car technology that feels futuristic can swiftly become the norm. 

With the help of Alex Buttle, director of car buying comparison website Motorway.co.uk, we’ve taken a look back at technology once considered revolutionary that’s gone on to become a mainstream feature in cars we own today.

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Tests on self-driving cars are continuing apace and they could arrive within five to ten years 

Tests on self-driving cars are continuing apace and they could arrive within five to ten years 

Tests on self-driving cars are continuing apace and they could arrive within five to ten years 

How close are driverless cars?

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling confirmed in January that autonomous cars would soon be tested on UK roads, while in November Chancellor Philip Hammond revealed his aim to see fully driverless cars in use by 2021.

The recent road death in Arizona involving an Uber self-driving vehicle – which marked the first ever fatal accident between an autonomous vehicle and a pedestrian – highlighted that tests are at a level where driverless cars are already on the roads, but they are not yet perfected. 

The technology continues to be fine-tuned, but it’s worth remembering not all automobile innovations enjoy a smooth road to long-term mass adoption. 

Air conditioning

Old school air circulation isn’t a patch on modern-day air conditioning when it comes to cooling down a vehicle, which probably explains why AC is a standard in nearly all new cars.

But considering that the first air conditioned cars were produced by luxury New York manufacturer, Packard, back in 1939, it actually took more than 40 years to become a common feature. 

Even in the early 2000s, only a third of European cars were fitted with AC as standard. Nowadays some high-end cars, such as the Ford Mustang, even have air conditioned seats.

The next generation of electric windows are on the way with the arrival of touch windows

The next generation of electric windows are on the way with the arrival of touch windows

The next generation of electric windows are on the way with the arrival of touch windows

Electric windows

Hand cranking the car window up and down used to be as commonplace as turning the steering wheel. But not anymore. 

Almost all new vehicles (bar bargain basement-spec Dacias), regardless of whether they are budget or luxury, come with electric windows as standard, but as with air conditioning, this took a while to become widely adopted.

The first electric windows were made by Packard in New York in 1940. Recently the Japanese car maker Ssangyong took electric windows to the next level; theirs open and close to the touch of the glass itself.

Satellite navigation 

Back in 1990, the Mazda Eunos Cosmo became the first car to feature a built-in GPS navigation system. Four years later, the BMW 7 series E38 offered the feature in Europe for the first time. 

Since then it’s been a bumpy ride for sat nav, which is still often bought as an additional accessory rather than fitted by the manufacturer – apart from in the middle to upper end of the market. 

While Google Maps on a mobile has somewhat replaced portable sat nav technology, the most popular device, TomTom, was actually voted the fifth most important invention of the 21st century in a YouGov survey of the British public in 2016.

The Audi Quattro (pictured) revolutionised rallying with the introduction of four wheel drive for a hatchback. It's since become commonplace on family cars

The Audi Quattro (pictured) revolutionised rallying with the introduction of four wheel drive for a hatchback. It's since become commonplace on family cars

The Audi Quattro (pictured) revolutionised rallying with the introduction of four wheel drive for a hatchback. It’s since become commonplace on family cars

Four wheel drive

Although four wheel drive vehicles have been around since the late 1800s, it wasn’t until the 1940s that they started to gain traction commercially. 

The turning point was when Ford began developing 4×4 vehicles for use in WWII, followed by their F-Series vehicles and then, in 1948, along came the Series 1 Land Rover. 

The first luxury 4×4 was the 1970 Range Rover by British Leyland; the model is now in its fourth generation.

Audi’s 1980 Quattro made four wheel drive not just competitive but visually attractive.

A special mention must go to the ground-breaking Jensen FF, however. Made from 1966, the British company’s Interceptor-related car was the first non off-road permanent four wheel drive car with anti-lock braking.

Motoring predictions for the next 80 years 

Automotive data and valuations expert hpi has just marked its 80th anniversary, and to celebrate has predicted what it expects to see transform motoring in the next 80 years.

Its experts highlighted the following predictions and trends:

· Internet will be standard in all vehicles in the next 5 to 10 years.

· Cars will be fully connected and synchronised with other vehicles resulting in a big reduction in road traffic accidents.

· Virtual co-pilots will control more of our driving enabling automatic lane changes and parking.

· The next 10 to 20 years will see autonomous cars completely changing travel with motorists able to work, socialise and even sleep when driving.

· Within 10 years there’ll be more focus on the interior rather than the exterior of the car with touch screens, entertainment, refreshments and comfort all incorporated within the design.

– Within 20 years steering wheels will be a thing of the past.

· The next 5 years will see motorists increasingly buying personalised cars online with virtual test drives and home delivery and with 10 years will move from car ownership to ‘usership’ with traditional dealers offering leasing and subscription services. 

Power steering

As early as 1940, Chevrolet was manufacturing vehicles with power steering for the British army. However, it was rival US car maker Chrysler that produced the first commercially available power steering on its 1951 Imperial. 

They called the facility ‘Hydraguide’. 

General Motors soon followed suit and by 1956 a quarter of all American cars were making turns with the help of hydraulics. 

It’s now been superseded by electronic power steering, even in sports cars such as the Porsche 911.

CAR TECH THAT NEVER MADE IT 

– Electronic Voice Alert (talking cars)

Perhaps it was the popularity of hit TV show Knight Rider that led manufacturers to launch talking cars in the 1980s. 

The addition of an Electronic Voice Alert (EVA) was trialled in the Datsun Maxima, Toyota’s Soarer MZ11, the Chrysler New Yorker and more. 

Drivers who left the window down, the key in the ignition or were nearing an empty tank of fuel would be alerted by their friendly talking car. The futuristic technology never really took off, with warning beeps and flashing lights proving more popular in the long-run.

– Vent windows

Remember hinged windows? Often triangular in shape, they were a common feature of cars throughout the sixties and seventies, providing fresh air to front and rear passengers. 

They fell out of fashion and are now something of a novelty in older, retro models. 

Their demise was no doubt sped up by the rise in air conditioning.

Catalytic converters

The pollution reducing catalytic converter was invented by Frenchman Eugene Houdry who moved to the USA in the 1930s.

Horrified by the smog in Los Angeles, he started work on a way to reduce exhaust fumes. 

Thanks to US federal regulations, adoption of the devices was well underway by the mid-1970s. 

Since January 1993, all new petrol-driven cars sold in the EU have been fitted with a catalytic converter.

Not only do they cut down the amount of poisonous carbon monoxide, but also nitrous oxides, the primary cause of smog and acid rain. Thanks to the catalytic converter, we can all breathe a little easier. 

Onboard computers

Volkswagen led the field by including car scanning capability in some models in 1968. 

The feature could alert owners to potential problems before they escalated further. Fifty years on, onboard computers are a legal necessity. Every car has at least one, which monitors emissions to keep them as low as possible.

Airbags

The industrial engineer John W. Hetrick patented the airbag in the USA on 18 August, 1953. But it wasn’t until 1971, upon the expiry of the patent, that the invention had its first commercial use in some Ford cars. 

Airbags have only become commonplace in passenger vehicles since the early 1990s, when BMW, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo included them on high-end models. 

Since then they’re now standard in both budget and luxury vehicles, with some manufacturers installing side airbags, seat belt airbags, knee airbags and more.

Airbags are standard equipment on cars these days, but before the 1990s they were considered a luxury safety item to have

Airbags are standard equipment on cars these days, but before the 1990s they were considered a luxury safety item to have

Airbags are standard equipment on cars these days, but before the 1990s they were considered a luxury safety item to have

Music

Long before streaming media, Bluetooth, Spotify and Apple Music were invented, listening to music while driving was already one of the greatest pleasures of life on the road.

Back in 1930, the world’s first dashboard radio, known as the Motorola, made music in the car possible for the first time. 

Since then there’s been constant innovation, with cassette decks arriving in the late 1960s and early’ 70s and CDs in the 1980s, before mobile devices took off.

Hybrid vehicles

Toyota created the first mass-produced hybrid car when it launched the Prius in 1997. 

The Honda Insight followed in 1999, and since then the market has seen many additions. 

Uptake in the UK is growing fast. In January, pro-hybrid campaign group, Go Ultra Low, revealed last year’s sales were up by more than 27 per cent on 2016. 

This growth is partly down to emissions legislation, which means the UK is legally bound by the Climate Change Act to reduce emissions 80 per cent by 2050. 

The original Toyota Prius launched in 1997 and paved the way for the hybrid models that followed it

The original Toyota Prius launched in 1997 and paved the way for the hybrid models that followed it

The original Toyota Prius launched in 1997 and paved the way for the hybrid models that followed it

Driverless cars on screen

1. Batman, 1966

Back in 1966, during series two of the superhero TV series, Batman uses a ‘remote control activator’ to order his Batmobile to come and pick him up. Many of the Caped Crusader’s various other vehicles since have featured form of self-driving tech. 

2. Herbie, 1968

Disney’s cheeky Volkswagen Beetle is capable of driving himself and even enters car-racing competitions. Lovable Herbie is much more than just a driverless car; he plays pranks on people and has a humorous personality. 

3. Jurassic Park, 1993

The original 1993 movie had chains of driverless Ford Explorers rolling through the park on safari. Perfect for dino-spotting until they started to go wrong.

4. Demolition Man, 1993

The 1993 film, starring Sandra Bullock, features a driverless car which bans all things mischievous – and even gives passengers a telling off if someone swears.

5. I, Robot, 2004

The Will Smith film, set in 2035, features an AI-aided Audi which comes uncannily close to the current reality of self-driving cars.

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