Over the past century and a half or so, the humble automobile has seen a million advancements: fuel injection, radial-ply tires, self-driving technology, cupholders. But the immediate differences that separate a 2019 Nissan Altima from, say, a 1918 Franklin Model B Touring can be narrowed down to these ten innovations.
1. ENCLOSED FENDERS
Let’s start with the obvious: How about the fact that your car doesn’t have separate fenders like Jay Gatsby’s Packard? Credit for this groundbreaking end to prewar style goes to the Italian firm Cisitalia, which introduced the 202 in 1946. The 202 did away with fender arches and upright radiators, integrating the fenders into the bodywork with one continuous, flowing shape.
Doing so improved aerodynamics, reduced vibrations and road noise, and set the template for the modern car. It also didn’t hurt that the 202 was one of the most beautiful cars on Earth.
The first car to carry an electric system of any kind was the Lancia Theta of 1913; it featured an electric starter and lights. Since then, our cars have only gotten more advanced. Electronic fuel injection came about in the `60s, developed by Bosch; with precise fueling measurements that worked across all conditions, they made even well-tuned carburetors look like fire hoses. Electronic control units and sensors could track engine performance and make real-time adjustments, improving efficiency.
It took a while for the reliability kinks to sort themselves out, but by the `80s, cars were evolving alongside the personal computer, adopting its advancements
3. FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT-DRIVE
It’s the basis of nearly every new car on the road today, and it`s endured for a reason. Early engineers at Citroën, Saab, and DKW figured out that placing the engine and transmission forward of the front-driving wheels could maximize interior volume and improve traction.
The Brits who gave us the Mini thought the same thing, albeit for a tiny city car. It wasn’t until Italian engineer Dante Giacosa honed the idea to stunning practicality with a small but spacious four-door that the layout became adopted by every single carmaker today.
4. CRUMPLE ZONES
A safety feature that’s not only taken for granted, but is also nearly invisible to a car’s occupants—until it saves their lives. Crumple zones originated in the `50s with the notion that a rigid car isn’t enough. The front and rear deform in a crash to absorb all of the impact, spreading it away from the passenger compartment.
This simple notion—eventually improved through computer-aided simulation—is how new cars are able to pass increasingly stringent crash tests.
5. HIGH-STRENGTH STEEL
Crumple zones and safety features are nothing if they’re not supported by the very foundation of a car: its metal bits. Advancements in metallurgy have given carmakers specific blends of high-strength steel that are easy to stamp and weld, resistant to corrosion, fire, or impact, and weigh less while retaining their strength.
6. HYBRID-ELECTRIC DRIVETRAIN
Once, in the earliest days of horseless transportation, electric cars were all the rage. And it might surprise you that the first hybrid-electric car debuted around that time: the 1901 Löhner-Porsche, which used a gasoline generator to power two hub-mounted electric motors.
Sound familiar? That’s because many range-extending electric vehicles today operate under a similar principle, while series-parallel hybrid cars (capable of running on electricity or gasoline alike) took off in the early 2000s. The proliferation of electrified cars today owes something to ancient history, it seems.
7. GPS NAVIGATION
The first in-car GPS navigation system debuted in 1990, on the Japan-only Eunos Cosmo. Linked to satellites on a built-in touchscreen, it was truly befitting a bizarre, rarefied, cutting-edge flagship. Since then, in-car navigation has become so popular as to be mundane, and center-mounted touchscreens have become the new normal. Now that we all have satellite navigation in our pockets, in-car GPS can sometimes seem slow to respond and clunky to use by comparison.
Carmakers have responded by offering smartphone integration, and the newest infotainment systems have picked up a few tricks from our phone screens: pinching and zooming, quicker responsiveness, and voice-activated searches.
8. ADAPTIVE CRUISE CONTROL
Radar-based guidance debuted in 1992 on a Japanese system that warned drivers of obstacles ahead. Since then, these distance-sensing systems have only gotten smarter and more convenient.
Today’s adaptive cruise control automatically slows down for vehicles in front, then speeds back up without any driver inputs. Linked to a car’s brakes, these systems can panic stop in an emergency (an act of self-preservation, since these systems still aren’t cheap). Some systems can even handle stop-and-go traffic, which is one nice perk for frustrated
9. BETTER TRANSMISSIONS
Automatic transmissions of yore used to be clunky, slow-shifting, thirsty, power-sapping things, always featuring one or two fewer gears than their manual equivalents and truly worthy of the epithet “slushbox.”
Not anymore! Dual-clutch automatics have trickled down from `90s race cars into vehicles you’re actually able to own. With two fast-acting clutches for each odd/even set of gears, they shift within milliseconds. And instead of gears, continuously variable transmissions use chains to provide an infinite number of ratios, allowing maximum efficiency in power delivery.
For the 98 percent of new cars sold in America with automatic transmissions, both technologies have allowed for better fuel efficiency and performance than in years past.
10. ACTIVE AERODYNAMICS
During the “Golden Age” of motorsport in the `60s, race teams tapped into this new field of aerodynamics; Jim Hall of Chaparral Racing was the first to employ adjustable wings, downforce-generating bodywork, and even a fan that literally sucked the car to the ground. Since then, supercars have employed self-adjusting spoilers for the same goal: to stick to the ground.
But active aerodynamics are not just limited to race cars and supercars. Some modern cars feature electronically-activated shutters behind their grilles that can close above a certain speed, allowing air to pass over smoothly. Just one of the neat little ways fuel economy can be improved on today’s cars, without the driver even having to think about it.
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