The Evolution of Modern Car Technology

Car Culture / 10 Comments

From a key in the ignition to unlocking a car with a cellphone.

The evolution of the car has been a long one, but as time moves on, technology develops faster and faster. The first car was invented in 1886 if you believe Mercedes-Benz, and then Henry Ford revolutionized how they were built with the Model T in 1908. In 1922, electronic ignition replaced the starter crank handle, but it wasn't until 1949 that Chrysler introduced the keyed ignition into production cars. Cigarette lighters came to automobiles in 1921, then car radios in 1930.

Once entertainment was taken care of, power steering appeared as far back as 1951, and then Chrysler introduced air conditioning in 1953, and cruise control appeared as early as 1958. Three-point seatbelts appeared in 1959 courtesy of Volvo, while the 1960s saw electric windows, heated seats, and intermittent wipers appear. Anti-lock brakes were first seen in 1971, in 1973, the catalytic converter turned up to ruin everyone's fun for nearly twenty years, and the first digital dashboard appeared in 1974. Airbags started becoming standard in the 1980s, then, in the 1990s, things started really picking up. That's where we'll start with the evolution of modern car technologies as we know them.


1990: Built-In Satellite Navigation

We take a GPS based navigation for granted now, but once upon a time, people had to use paper maps and written directions. Then companies started playing with navigation systems in cars, which were problematic for several reasons, mainly in being able to pinpoint the car's location accurately. Then, in 1990, Mazda was the first to put a GPS based navigation system in a production vehicle. It went into the Japanese market Eunos Cosmo, which is a whole article in itself. The first GPS navigation system in a US car came from Oldsmobile and was a $1,995 option in 1995. It wasn't until 2000 that the US government made a more accurate GPS signal available for civilian use, and GPS based navigation started to become commonplace.

Mazda/Eunos Mazda/Eunos Mazda/Eunos Oldsmobile

1996: Connected Cars

The term 'connected cars' has become a buzzword in the 21st century, but it was GM working with Motorola that created the first connected system for a car, and they called it OnStar. The first OnStar telematics systems could call emergency services if an airbag deployed, and was first fitted to the Cadillac Eldorado, DeVille, and Seville. Over time, the ability to add GPS locations and the ability to transmit voice and data at the same time evolved. OnStar is still a feature on cars and in its tenth generation and with a lot more features added, but virtually every automaker has a similar system available.


1998: Color Head-Up Display

The head-up display (HUD) was a futuristic sci-fi wonder in the 1980s. The first automotive head-up display appeared on the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Indy Pace Cars and replicas in 1998. They became more widely available, and Toyota and Nissan started offering them on select models, most notably the Nissan 240SX. They've now become a common option for cars, and many automakers make them standard on higher trims. Most HUD systems use color to draw the eye to pertinent information, but the first car to offer a color head-up display was the 1998 Chevrolet Corvette. Cadillac then offered a HUD in the XLR, and BMW pushed development hard with the 2003 5 Series.

Chevrolet Chevrolet Lincoln

1999: Laser Adaptive Cruise Control

Mercedes has a long list of technology it has brought to market before anyone else, often in its most premium of premium models. Mitsubishi pioneered laser-controlled cruise control with a lidar-based cruise control system that used throttle and transmission control to adapt the car's speed but didn't use the brakes. Mercedes introduced its Distronic system in 1999 on the S-Class and CL as the first radar-assisted Autonomous cruise control system available worldwide. Its impact reverberates still as autonomous vehicle technology slowly creeps forward.

Daimler AG Daimler AG

2000/2001: Bluetooth

A Bluetooth connection to our cellphones is something we take for granted in 2020, and it's rare for a car to be sold without Bluetooth technology as standard. In the mid-1990s, you could buy a car stereo head unit with Bluetooth, but it was a while before it appeared as an option. History is a little hazy about which manufacturer offered it from the factory first as Chrysler saw it as a great idea early on, but it's likely the Acura TL was the first car to be offered in the US with the technology equipped.

Acura Acura CarBuzz

2001: Modern Infotainment System

It's hard to pin down when the infotainment system, as we know it today, came into being. BMW introduced its iDrive system to the 7 Series in 2001; it featured a prominent screen that was controlled by a central knob and meant fewer buttons on the dashboard. But the first touchscreen in a car dates back to the 1986 Buick Riviera and its green-and-black cathode-ray tube display. At that time, Popular Mechanics wrote that the touchscreen "violates the First Commandment of ergonomics - you must take your eyes off the road to make any adjustments." 21 years later, after the release of the first Apple iPhone in 2007, we saw the big move to touchscreen systems in cars.


2002: Parking Camera

The first example of a rearview camera goes back to the 1956 Buick Centurion concept car. Volvo also toyed with the idea in 1972 Volvo Experimental Safety Car, but it didn't make it into production for some time. The first production car with a rear camera was the Japanese market 1991 Toyota Soarer Limited, but not the US market's Lexus SC equivalent. However, it was Infiniti that added guidelines for parking on the 2002 Q45 flagship sedan, which debuted at the New York Auto Show in 2000. Nissan also used the 2002 Nissan Primera to introduce the technology outside of the US and Japan. Legislation introduced in 2018 has subsequently made the humble reverse camera standard in all modern cars. The concept of a surround-view camera then arrived on the 2008 Infiniti EX35, using four cameras to give a bird's eye view of the vehicle, with numerous manufacturers following suit.

Infiniti Infiniti Infiniti Infiniti

2004: Remote Start

Remote start technology had been available via the aftermarket for years before 2004, but that was the year GM decided to make the technology available direct from the factory. Before starting, the vehicles were set to run diagnostics in engine oil pressure, engine temperature, throttle position, brake/transmission shift position, and battery voltage. If everything checked out and the hood wasn't open, the car could be started from the key fob and then be unlocked at the driver's leisure. It has become an incredibly valuable feature for people living in climates with particularly hot or cold weather, allowing them to start the car and let it cool down or warm up before even leaving the house.


2006: Self Parking Car

Lexus showed the world the first self-parking production car; the 2006 LS 460 sedan was unveiled at the Detroit International Auto Show, and the technology blew people away. To activate it, the driver had to put the car in reverse, which enabled the rearview camera, then press the parallel park icon on the touchscreen to place an indicator square over the parking space they wanted to use. The driver could then release the steering wheel while the car parked and maneuvered itself. Other manufacturers followed, and, with each iteration, the technology has gotten smoother, more precise, and faster to park.

Lexus The Car Connection

2007: Blind Spot Monitoring

As thicker pillars became prevalent due to safety legislation due to rollover risks, blind spots when using side-view mirrors became more problematic on passenger vehicles. Volvo developed its Blind Spot Information System and included it on its 2007 S80 sedan, which created a visible alert for the driver when changing lanes with another car present. Ford was Volvo's parent company at the time and started using the same system for all of its brands. Mazda then used a similar system for its 2008 Mazda CX-9, but only in Grand Touring trim. In 2013, Mazda started making it more available through its range, and other companies followed suit. Blind spot monitoring systems are now also used for rear-cross-traffic safety systems.

Volvo Volvo Volvo Mazda

2007: LED Headlights

The common halogen lamp is an energy-hungry unit and is usually only rated for around 800 hours of use, while High Intensity Discharge (HID) lighting is an expensive and complicated system that's not the most ideal either. LED headlights, however, strike an excellent balance, and give bright white light, light up faster than halogen, are energy-efficient, and have a long operating life. They're also easy to package as they use small bulbs and allow automakers to get creative with lighting designs.

The use of LEDs for exterior on cars goes back as far as the 1986 Chevrolet Corvette's brake lights. Kia started using LED turn indicators in 2002, and then the 2007 Audi R8 used LED daytime running lights. Outside of the US, the R8 had the first option for LED headlights while, at the same time, the Lexus LS featured LED low beams and side markers in the US. The Cadillac Escalade featured low and high beams powered by LEDs in 2009, but it wasn't until the current-generation Mercedes S-Class that we saw the first car to use exclusively LED lighting, both inside and out.

Audi Cadillac Mercedes

2009: Smart Phone Connected Cars

Now, pretty much every automaker has something to offer in the way of smartphones interacting with a car. In 2009, Mercedes launched the first iteration of its 'mbrace' app to allow remote access to owner's vehicles from their smartphone. It worked with iPhone and Blackberry and allowed remote door locking and unlocking as well as vehicle location. Since then, apps from automakers have increased in scope to include everything including diagnostics, checking the fuel level, the vehicle's location, remote start, and even booking service appointments.

Mercedes Mercedes

2012: First License For Autonomous Cars

The race to build the first production autonomous car started in the 2010s. It was Google that secured the first license to take its experimental driverless technology on the road. The Toyota Prius was issued its license in Nevada and opened the gates to testing autonomous systems. That has led us to a plethora of driver assistance features on production cars, such as lane-keeping, collision avoidance, and advanced adaptive cruise control systems. In 2014, Tesla then dropped its first iteration of Autopilot for existing owners as the first commercially available system that can steer the car without input from the driver and change lanes on the motorway.

Google Google Google

2014: Apple CarPlay

A common problem with automaker's infotainment systems has been that they are not designed well and are often operated on hardware to that found in the smartphone in the driver's pocket. Apple's CarPlay came to market in 2014, closely followed by Android Auto, to change that. Both Apple and Google lead the way with their voice control and navigation, and the systems use popular travel and music apps, integrating everyday life with the car, and ensuring that a car's tech is never further behind than your easily-upgradable smartphone. All you currently have to do is plug in your phone, and it becomes the infotainment system.

Apple Google

2018: Phone As Key

Keyless entry has been with us for a long time. Ford's SecuriCode has been around since 1980, although it started out being called Keyless Entry System. It's been a slow burn for the technology to become mainstream and has always required having your remote in your pocket. It seems incredible that it took so long, but Tesla introduced its customers to using a cellphone to replace the remote key fob in 2018. Model 3's were able to sense the driver's phone from up to 30 feet away and unlock the doors. There have been security and safety concerns, which is why the more traditional automakers have been slow to follow, but soon, this tech will be the go-to choice.

Tesla Tesla Tesla

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