This article appeared in www.popularmechanics.com on September 21, 2016
Cars have come a long way in the last quarter-century. A look at the cars of 1991 is all you need to realize how much technology has changed the auto industry in a quarter-century. Here are 15 of the most important automotive advancements and milestones of the last 25 years.
Mitsubishi was one of the first manufacturers to offer a differential that could be electronically controlled. The system was called Active Yaw Control and was available on its high performance Evolution model in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, we in America didn’t get the Evo until 2003. But today, active differentials that use electronics to send torque across an axle are found in many high performance cars.
If equipped on both the front and rear axles of an all-wheel drive car, these sophisticated differentials can direct the vehicle’s torque to any wheel in any amount at any moment. That not only improves handling when the driver is pushing hard, but also improves the around town drivability and traction in foul weather, without any drawbacks. And this tech isn’t just for sports cars. The Land Rover LR4, for instance, has an electronic rear differential that can fully lock for a rocky trail and unlock in varying degrees for smooth operation on the street.
In the future, headlamp technology will go further. German automakers are betting on laser headlamps. These lights are not yet legal in the US but can provide a high beam with incredible range up to 1,000 times brighter than an LED (according to BMW) at a far lower power level.
Not so long ago this sensation was a pure novelty. In 1998, Mercedes-Benz was the first to offer the tech. Some of the first versions were credit card-sized slivers of plastic, but those evolved into the fobs we have today.
Dual clutch transmissions have been used in racing since the 1980s. Volkswagen was the first to popularize the transmission and democratize its use in relatively pedestrian cars. VW’s dual clutch transmission, called DSG, was launched in mainstream performance vehicles like the GTI in 2003. The downside of dual-clutch? They put a big nail in the manual transmission’s coffin. Today, these transmissions are used by just about every brand in performance applications, from Mercedes-Benz to Lamborghini.
Early on, car enthusiasts despised OBD II. That’s because its main purpose in life was to test vehicle emissions—the thought was that this nannying would make performance modifications more difficult. But since the introduction of OBD II two decades ago, cars have dramatically increased in performance while also running cleaner. Meanwhile, OBD II has created an industry for not only scan tools that tell you why your Check Engine light is on, but also aftermarket devices including performance tuners and fuel economy meters.
Both GM and Ford introduced small turbocharged engines in the 2008-2009 timeframe that signaled the tech had matured enough to install in the company’s least-expensive cars. Now automakers could use smaller, more efficient turbo engines and retain (or even exceed) the power levels of larger engines. Today, nearly every manufacturer has downsized its engines to smaller turbocharged ones with a boost in performance and fuel economy.
What changed? The design of the turbos themselves were refined. Parts were made smaller, lighter, and more responsive. Twin-scroll turbos and twin-turbo setups allow engines to make power and torque all across the rev range with very little of the lag that old-style turbo engines were known for. Modern turbos are constructed of stronger materials than the old ones. The popularization of direct fuel injection also contributed to turbo performance, because this form of fuel delivery helps cools the intake stream, which allows for higher compression ratios—and more reliable power.
There are two types of systems. Indirect TPMS uses the anti-lock braking system and wheel speed sensors to notice if tires are spinning faster than they should, indicating reduced air pressure. A light illuminates when the tire is 25 percent below a pressure threshold. Direct TPMS is far more accurate and uses pressure sensors inside each wheel to measure tire pressure and send it to your vehicle’s information center.
The first TPMS was available on the Porsche 959 supercar in the late 1980s. But it took new laws, sparked by outrage over the Firestone/Ford Explorer rollovers of the 1990s, for the systems to become widely adopted. The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act of 2000 ensured that every passenger vehicle would have these systems standard by 2008.
Today about half of all new cars come with a basic backup camera standard. The tech is so valuable in preventing injuries that it will be required on all passenger vehicles by 2018.
Then, in 1991, GM launched the fully electric EV1. This car looked and drove like the future, but it wasn’t without faults. The EV1 had long charge times, and though it promised 70-90 miles on a charge, Popular Mechanics’ own real-world testing at the time saw ranges closer to 50-60 miles. The EV1s were all leased vehicles and famously crushed upon their return to GM, and to some it seemed like the EV resurgance was crused along with them. But it was the pioneering efforts of GM and others, along with advancements in battery technology, that set the stage for the EV revolution that began a decade later. You’ve heard all about Tesla, no doubt, but the more established car companies are taking EVs more seriously than ever. GM’s new brainchild is the Bolt, an affordable car that delivers nearly 240 miles on a single charge.
As the technology has advanced, it has gotten more ambitious. On many vehicles, the tech behind this same radar system is used in collision avoidance systems that warn a driver they’re in danger, apply full brake power automatically, or both. Mercedes-Benz added the ability to steer just three years ago, and last year Tesla enabled its somewhat controversial Autopilot with fully autonomous control. Someday in the future, when your car really does all the driving, remember that it all started with a relatively small improvement in cruise control.
Airbags have saved tens of thousands of people since then, and the success of driver and passenger bags lead to a proliferation of airbags around the cabin. Today, even a humble compact sedan has driver and passenger airbags in addition to side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags that trigger in the event of a rollover.
Automakers began to offer navigation systems that relied at least partially on Global Positioning System satellites in the mid-to-late 1990s. Oldsmobile was the first in the U.S, with Guidestar in 1995, but the U.S. government deliberately degraded the signals given to Guidestar. In 2000, the true precision of GPS came to civilians, and soon after, automakers began developing and installing systems in new luxury vehicles like the BMW 7-Series. It wasn’t long before the aftermarket for portable GPS units exploded with new dash-top units. These systems work so well and are so convenient that paper maps have basically disappeared from vehicle glove boxes.
Toyota was the first to market with a mass-produced hybrid in the form of the 1998 Prius. It combined a dinky 1.5-liter gas engine with an electric motor and nickel-metal hydride battery pack. Not many embraced the tech early on, but the idea was revolutionary and changed the face of the car industry—nearly every automaker has a hybrid or plug-in hybrid in the lineup. And while few loved frumpy body of the first Prius, Toyota soon replaced it with the cars familiar futuristic look. Since the 1990s, Toyota has sold almost 4 million Prius liftbacks and now has a full lineup of Prius-badged hybrids.
This article appeared originally at: https://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/g2778/most-important-automotive-tech-milestones/