When I was in high school in the mid-’90s, cars and trucks seemed thoroughly modern. Multiport electronic fuel injection, airbags, and slick, aerodynamic bodywork were like nothing that had ever come before.
It all seemed so new, but automotive technology had progressed steadily since Henry Ford’s assembly line began spitting out the first mass-produced Model Ts more than 100 years ago. Fuels, metallurgy, and manufacturing techniques improved, and by the 1960s, engineers had figured out how to wring a lot of power out of the available technology.
With the advent of federal motor vehicle safety and emissions standards starting in the ’60s and ’70s, power and build quality took a dive in the U.S. market until Japanese automakers were able to whip development toward the computer-age cars I remember from the high school parking lot. But even then, cars were relatively simple.
Now, humanity seems poised to make a great leap in motor-vehicle technology advancement. Every few months – if not more frequently – news of some new breakthrough in automation or battery technology bubbles to the surface of public consciousness.
Even as scientists and regulators grapple over the implications of someday having self-driving cars on the majority of public roads, most of the vehicles available for sale today are at least available with technology many people wouldn’t have dreamed of 15 or 20 years ago. This is poignant – according to the most recent data from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average age of a car in the U.S. is 11.6 years old.
If You Don’t Pay Attention, the Car Will
The most noticeable changes of the past decade have come in the form of active safety technologies and conveniences that have been proven to reduce collisions and represent the fundamental building blocks of future autonomous self-driving vehicles.
For example, one of the most effective active safety systems is known as automatic emergency braking (AEB). It can tell when you’re in danger of crashing into a vehicle or object ahead, and if you fail to react to visual and audible warnings, it can take over and brake the vehicle to either avoid the collision or to slow your car down before the impact occurs. This technology was practically non-existent in the mid-2000s, but now, every manufacturer offers it as an option and may include it as a standard feature.
Other active safety systems include blind-spot monitoring with lane departure prevention, automated steering assistance to help keep your car centered in its lane, and adaptive cruise control, which moderates your vehicle’s speed to match the traffic ahead and can, depending on the system, automatically bring the car to a stop.
Ending Gasoline Hegemony
Gas-electric hybrids had a slow start when the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius hit the market at the turn of the most recent century, but they’ve picked up a lot of momentum since then.
Mating the conventional gasoline-powered internal combustion engine with an electric motor and a sizeable battery pack, a hybrid vehicle uses the brakes and gasoline motor to charge the battery, which then assists the gasoline engine with the stored energy by powering the electric motor. Some hybrids can drive on pure electric power for a short time – and plug-in hybrids for even longer – but the overall benefit is improved fuel economy.
Today, almost every manufacturer has at least one hybrid model, including luxury marques.
Structural Protection Improves
Crash safety has made another huge technological jump in recent years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been crash testing cars since 1979, adding front offset crash testing in 1995 and side-impact testing in 2003. Roof strength standards were beefed up in 2009 to improve rollover safety, which is why you may have noticed that the pillars supporting the roof have become much thicker in recent years.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) conducts its own thorough crash testing, rating everything from impact performance and lighting to the effectiveness of active crash-avoidance technology. In fact, the IIHS testing is more rigorous than the NHTSA course off assessments, and car companies covet the IIHS “Top Safety Pick” rating.
As a result of this testing, structurally, cars and trucks have become much safer, even just in the past decade.
Computers Check Low Tires
Onboard tire-pressure monitors have been required on new vehicles since 2008. In the old days, motorists were encouraged to check tire pressure once a week, or at the very least, when the seasons changed and tire pressure fluctuated with air temperature. The problem, however, has always been that most people don’t bother checking tire pressure.
Why is checking your car’s tire pressure important? Overinflated tires can lead to premature tread wear, which can cause tire failure. Underinflated tires affect handling, fuel economy, and can negatively impact safety.
Today, many cars have onboard computers that will tell you if you have a tire that’s low on or is leaking air. Some systems will even tell you which tire it is. And when you stop at a gas station to air-up, a handful of them will tell you when to stop.
Transportation, Meet Entertainment
In the 1980s, General Motors equipped a couple of high-end personal luxury coupes with touchscreen controls. The systems, available in the Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado, were laughably expensive and utterly useless.
Twenty years later, in the 2000s, the word “infotainment” firmly entered the automotive lexicon to describe similar technology with much-improved hardware, software, and user experience. Your old car might even have one.
Fast-forward another decade, and modern dashboards are decorated with configurable Wi-Fi-enabled infotainment systems that look and work just like the smartphone in your pocket. Big screens, lush high-definition graphics, and natural voice recognition are commonplace, as are fast Wi-Fi connections and extra-cost services that can better inform you, protect you, and make life easier for you.
Entertainment systems are also more sophisticated, supporting content streaming from onboard devices or home systems such as Slingbox. On the convenience front, some cars can even park themselves while you stand outside of them and monitor their progress, which still others have facial recognition technology that can tell when the driver is not paying attention to the road and request that he or she put eyes forward.
The Bottom Line
More changes are coming down the pike, particularly as automakers beef up connectivity and electrification. What we’ve seen over the past decade is only the tip of the technological iceberg.