The last 30 years have seen some of the biggest advances in automotive technology since the invention of the wheel. We've watched the passenger car morph from a fuel-guzzling steel tank into the refined, efficient piece of smart hardware it is today. So how far have we come? And what's in store for the future?
The 1980s were a time of change, as vehicle manufacturers put more development into fuel efficiency and safety. Square steel fenders and bumpers were replaced with more aerodynamic plastic items to reduce weight and wind drag. Smaller fuel-injected motors replaced big V8 carburetor-fed engines to produce more fuel-efficient cars.
By the mid 1990s, anti-lock brakes and safety airbags—two of the biggest advances in vehicle safety—were becoming standard fitment. Hydromechanical automatic transmissions were also phased out by electronically controlled transmissions, which greatly improved fuel efficiency and emissions output.
The new millennium introduced improvements on ABS technology, and advanced traction control systems that use wheel-speed sensors to control wheel spin became common. Hybrid technology, using a combination of gasoline and electric motors, finally went into mass production after years of development. Hybrids have been the single biggest advancement in emissions reduction to hit showrooms.
Vehicle manufacturers are refining smaller motors to produce more power without excess fuel consumption. Technologies such as variable valve timing, advanced induction systems and more precise manufacturing are making engines more efficient. Another big advance in technology is the regenerative braking system. It converts the kinetic energy of braking into the electricity that powers accessories. Otherwise, powering these accessories would put a load on the alternator and reduce fuel consumption.
As an example, using much of this technology, the 2014 Buick Regal with its 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder motor produces 259 horsepower and earns fuel consumption figures of up to 31 miles per gallon. Compare this to the 1985 Regal's 22 mpg from its 110-hp yet much larger 3.6-liter V6 motor. In this example, advanced technology makes it possible to generate more than twice the horsepower in a motor with almost 1/2 the displacement.
Advances in traction control enable these systems to work in unison with the suspension to provide full vehicle stability control. Collision-avoidance technology uses radar, infrared sensors or cameras to warn drivers of a potential collision. Cars are getting harder to crash, and if you do crash, you'll be surrounded by a plethora of airbags—front, side and rear—cushioning you between improved crumple zones.
Future automotive technology is focused on fuels that reduce carbon emissions. Hydrogen-powered cars are nearing mass production already. Propelled by hydrogen produced from natural gas, they produce zero emissions, as water is the only byproduct.
Materials such as carbon fiber, Kevlar, and titanium will be more readily used to reduce weight and improve efficiency. These materials have been around for years in motor sports, where manufacturers have tested them to develop technology for everyday-production cars.
Safety technology is headed toward removing the factor of human error from driving. Wireless technology is being developed to communicate between vehicles to prevent collisions. Such technology could also be used in infrastructure, such as traffic signals, to relay information between the signals and your vehicle.
It's been a big 30 years for automotive technology, and the next 30 could be just as big. We have gone from driving inefficient, unsafe steel machines to environmentally friendly smart vehicles. The future is looking bright, and we can't wait to see how it unfolds.