In The Tempest, William Shakespeare once wrote, “what’s past is prologue.” The quotation implies that one’s history can dictate his or her future actions. It’s written outside the United States National Archives Building, and I had a particularly intelligent and entertaining professor who reflected on it often. Looking at the auto industry, it’s clear that the sentiment extends beyond Shakespeare’s verse.
New automotive technologies emerge every year. We covered some of them last week. Some, like the airbag or the seat belt, have ushered in a new era of motoring, changing the landscape forever. Others fall flat—despite Saab’s creative thinking with the 9000 Prometheus, steering via joystick never really got off the ground (the Prometheus didn’t even make it to production). What I find most interesting is looking back on these advancements and seeing how they’ve impacted cars today, despite their often lackluster starts.
All-wheel-drive (AWD) cars are so common today that you’d be hard pressed to drive a single mile through a lightly inhabited area without seeing one. At least, that’s how it feels here in the Northeast (I’m sure there are some parts of the world where 2-wheel-drive cars still reign supreme… Maldives, perhaps?). However, when AWD first appeared in a production car, it barely sputtered to a start. The Jensen FF was a 6.3-liter V8-powered grand tourer, hardly different in styling than the Jensen Interceptor—exactly what a red-blooded enthusiast wants. However, the price and complexity of the FF (no relation to the more modern Ferrari of the same name) priced it outside most budgets, and it wasn’t until Subaru released the Leone five years later that AWD became more widely adopted.
While AWD has entrenched itself in automotive marketing, the continuously variable transmission (CVT) has been a bit more covert in its automotive insurgency. With more and more pressure being placed on automakers to improve fuel efficiency, the traditional planetary transmission is being supplanted by the CVT. These transmissions don’t use set gear ratios, but rather constantly adjust to keep the powertrain humming at optimum speeds. They’re not exactly fan favorites at car shows, but it’s worth noting that when employed creatively, they can drastically improve performance (which is why they’ve been banned in Formula 1 racing for more than 20 years). Not bad for technology first seen in the U.S. via the Subaru Justy.
Don’t forget about turbos! Today, we use turbocharging to increase performance, but it’s also critically important to fuel efficiency. Forced induction allows a same-size engine to generate more horsepower and a lot more torque. The result? Mileage estimates of 31 mpg highway for a Jeep Renegade, 31 mpg highway from a 4-cylinder Mustang, or even 37 mpg highway from a Chevy Malibu—just to name a few. If you look back to the turbo’s beginnings, however, fuel efficiency certainly wasn’t the plan. Initially brought to market in 1962 by Oldsmobile (of all companies), the evocatively named Cutlass Jetfire featured a 215-cubic-inch turbocharged V8 making all of 215 horsepower… and questionable mileage. The Jetfire may have been a bit ahead of its time, as turbos didn’t show up again until BMW sorted things out with its sublime 2002 Turbo.
Today, shoppers can buy cars with automatic emergency braking, internet connectivity, and even autopilot. The question is, are these the automotive breakthroughs they seem to be, or should we be looking elsewhere for a glimpse into the future?
What current automotive technology do you think will most dramatically impact cars of the future?