CAR magazine recently turned sixty years old, so we decided to look back at the most influential technical developments of the past six decades...
To really appreciate the advancements in automotive technology, I urge you to drive a classic car. Spending some time in a vehicle without climate control, power-assisted brakes (not to mention no ABS), electric stability control, power steering, cruise control and so on illustrates how automotive technology has evolved. These 10 examples have made the biggest impact.
1. Platform scalability - Space utilisation and cost
On older vehicles, the word “chassis” applied to a ladder-frame structure that formed the backbone for suspension components and powertrain. Although carmakers experimented with unibody concepts in the 1920s, the first production vehicles with this advancement were launched only in the 1930s (the Citroën Traction Avant is an example). The Detroit Big Three adopted unibody design for their compact vehicles as late as the ’60s. Today's unibody platforms are fully scalable, with, for example, the VW Group’s MQB unit underpinning various models.
2. Radial tyres - Handling, comfort, safety and efficiency
Not long after John Boyd Dunlop produced the first pneumatic tyre in 1888, the cross-ply tyre was standard fitment on most automobiles. Michelin then invented the radial tyre in 1946, promising many advantages over the cross-ply. The main reason for the improved performance was that the sidewall of a radial tyre is more flexible owing to different construction methods. This allows for better shock absorption and less distortion of the contact patch during cornering. Widespread acceptance of the technology took place towards the end of the 1960s.
3. Anti-lock brakes - Safety
Although ABS was developed for aircraft in the early 1900s to prevent skids when landing on slippery runways, it took many decades before the first production vehicle was equipped with an anti-lock system. The initial account of a production system that functioned on all four wheels was the Sure-Brake setup on the 1971 Chrysler Imperial. Bosch claims that the first system that mirrors today’s generally used setup was found in the 1978 Mercedes-Benz S-Class. With airbags and seatbelts, this was the biggest advancement in occupant safety.
4. Convenience features - Comfort and safety
The main purpose of the automobile is personal transport, but as it has become an integral part of our daily lives, convenience features have become more important. In the last six decades, we’ve witnessed climate control (and heated and cooled seats with massage), electric windows, mirrors, sunroofs and tailgates, keyless entry and start, adaptive cruise control, auto lights and wipers, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, touchscreens and the like. The smartphone is also changing how we interact with our vehicles.
5. The ECU - Efficiency and performance
The word “carburettor” is used only when discussing classic vehicles. In order to decrease emissions (with the addition of a catalyst) and efficiency in petrol engines, the control of the air-fuel mixture and ignition timing had to improve in the 1980s. The development of the automotive electronic control unit (ECU) with microprocessor and memory made it possible to replace carburettors and distributors. Today, the ECU receives hundreds of sensor inputs, and controls many actuators and systems, in real time by conducting thousands of calculations per second to provide efficient propulsion.
6. The can bus - Communication and mass
The modern vehicle consists of hundreds of sensors, actuators, systems and control units. These parts need to communicate with each other and receive sensor inputs in real time to allow the driver all the functionality they require from a vehicle. It would be near impossible to connect each of the control units to all the sensors (and to each other) by dedicated wires. The elegant solution is a network known as the Controller Area Network (or CAN bus). It was developed by Bosch in 1983 and released in 1986.
7. Dual-clutch transmissions - Efficiency and performance
The manual gearbox trumped the efficiency and speed of the torque-converter automatic for most of the previous century. That was until the first Volkswagen-developed twin-clutch unit (DSG) was introduced in a series production vehicle in 2003 (the Golf 4 R32). Frenchman Adolphe Kégresse invented the technology back in 1939, but it was not used in anger until the Porsche 956 and 962 Le Mans racecars, and the Audi Sport Quattro S1 rally car in the 1980s.
8. Turbocharging - Efficiency and performance
The first turbocharged petrol engine in a production passenger car appeared in the 1962 Oldsmobile Jetfire. It was a long wait for the first turbodiesel-engined vehicle in the form of the Mercedes-Benz 300SD in 1978. Initially, turbocharging was aimed purely at performance enhancement, but the introduction of small, turbopetrol engines featuring direct injection in the last decade aimed to improve efficiency and lower emissions. A worthy example is the 1,0-litre Ford EcoBoost three-cylinder turbopetrol that has won the overall International Engine of the Year award three times.
9. Connected cars - Connectivity, safety and convenience
SIM cards are now standard fitment on many new-model ranges and they allow the vehicle to be connected to the outside world via the GSM network. Added functionality includes automatic SOS calls in the event of an accident, sending data to your smartphone regarding the position and state of your vehicle, synching with your work calendar, and even accepting the GPS location of the restaurant you booked from your computer at work.
10. Electric vehicles - Sustainability, emissions and efficiency
Did you know the first electric vehicle was built as early as 1837, by Robert Davidson of Scotland? Poor battery technology with low energy density caused the battery electric vehicle to lose favour to cars with internal-combustion engines. The revival of the electric vehicle happened in the 1990s with many manufacturers running pilot programmes. Lithium-ion battery technology gave the current crop of electric vehicles a foothold in the automotive market and further battery development to increase range could spell the end of the internal-combustion engine.
The next step: Autonomous vehicles
Self-drive cars aren’t on this list of top 10 innovations because no series-production model with full capability currently exists. That has more to do with legislation than ability, however, and we expect this list in our 70th-birthday issue to be topped by autonomous tech.
Article by Nicol Louw