Thursday, April 28, 2016

Getting There First: These Are the Auto Technology Pioneers

First. We all know what it means. What we often don't agree about is who can rightfully claim to be first. In the auto business, being first to innovate a new and desirable feature has competitive advantage—or not. It's possible to be too early, to roll out the "new" before it's ready or before the market is ready to receive it.---Consider Toyota's advantage in the hybrid segment with its Prius. There were cars that combined electric and gasoline engines as early as 1896, and several were offered before 1910, but most needed the driver to choose one mode or the other. Toyota was "first" with a modern hybrid that automated the combined operation. But only in Japan, not in America (Honda's Insight beat it to the punch here). Being early didn't pay off right away. The world's biggest car company was playing the long game, establishing its position and dominance years before selling hybrids was profitable. Now, every new hybrid has to start by answering the question: Is it better than a Prius? ---At today's rate of change, technology-based innovations are often only "first" by a few months . . . or not at all. Car companies develop new features hand-in-hand with suppliers, who may have multiple customers. Or the suppliers do the creating. Something that looks unique and fresh in the middle of one model year can be everywhere at the beginning of the next. Apps, especially; no one had Apple CarPlay 18 months ago. Now carmakers without it have to answer, "Why not?"---It was not always thus. Through the long history of automotive development, the company that had something new could boast on it for years while the rest of the industry beavered away trying to catch up. ---Get into any modern vehicle, and you're riding on the shoulders of inventors who, decades ago, came up with things we now find commonplace—say, intermittent wipers or electric window lifts—often for companies that failed anyway. Being first with the idea is one thing; turning it into profits is often another.---So we've gathered this list of genuine firsts. Don't worry, we're not going deep into the car's innards. The catalog of "firsts" along the road between the horseless carriage and today's earthbound spaceship is full of steps that came and went in their time—there was a "first" car with distributor points, and good riddance to it. Before we had six- and seven-speed manual gearboxes and automatics with eight, nine, even 10 ratios, someone had to be first to offer three, four, and five. So?---For our purposes here, imagine that you've stepped into a typical 2016 crossover with a modern 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, all-wheel drive, and the most common conveniences and safety features. When did that start? Who got there first? Often, as with rearview mirrors and lots of engine technologies, the "first" car with a feature was built for racing. Others appear on one-off dream or concept cars that may predict the future but rarely represent it. General Motors envisioned what we'd now call "stability control" on a Corvette concept in the 1980s. Self-driving automobiles? There were concept cars forecasting that in the 1950s. So, while acknowledging such racing and concept antecedents, we've defined "first" here as meaning that a car company went into production with the invention.Just getting an early car started was a laborious task. Set the choke, fuel mixture, and spark advance, step out and walk to the front to grab the handle on the engine crank and give it a few turns, adjust as needed until it ran. Replacing the dangerous and onerous task of cranking with an electric motor to do the work was a huge game-changing "first." Charles Kettering invented the starter in Dayton, Ohio, innovating on his previous invention of a cash register that opened its drawer with a motor assist. Kettering had already invented a new ignition system for Cadillac, and the "self starter" showed up in 1912 on that brand, along with a whole electrical system that made electric lights practical.---It pretty much spelled the beginning of the end for the era’s electric cars and steam cars and any other mode of transportation that took more preparation to get going than to hop in and push the button. Yes, button. Energize the ignition system with one switch, then press a button (floor-mounted ones you pressed with your foot were most common) to spin the engine up with the starter. Ignition keys came later to lock that system (some cite Cadillac's V-16 of 1930, others say it arrived here and there earlier in the ’20s), but the familiar combination ignition/starter switch using a key you'd twist to engage the starter and release afterward? That didn't show up until after World War II (Chrysler, 1949). Now we walk up to the car, it senses the key fob in our pocket or handbag, the doors unlock, we hop in, push a button, and drive off. Firsts upon firsts along the way.Car and Driver loves manual transmissions, but to most people who just want to get somewhere, the process of shifting gears has always looked like a bit of skilled labor that inventors could profitably eliminate. Various devices to make shifting easier came and went until GM Research, under the guy they were now calling "Boss" Kettering, devised the Hydra-Matic. It first appeared on Oldsmobiles in 1939. Mind you, this is just the first of many cases when a first credited to "1939" means the calendar year, not the model year. The Olds with Hydra-Matic was a 1940 model. Within two years, though, the auto industry wasn't making cars, devoting all its efforts to World War II. So, naturally enough, GM built tanks with automatic transmissions and kept gathering field experience with how to build them better and more reliably.Some "firsts" are easily traced to a single origin. Hub van Doorne created what he called the "variomatic" transmission for use in the tiny DAF 600 car that debuted in 1958. Yes, there'd been a similar transmission idea employed in Britain's Clyno cars in the 1920s, but they made few and sold fewer. Van Doorne's company had started as a machine shop in Eindhoven, Holland, in 1928. He started making trucks in 1949. The transmission employed belts and cone-shaped pulleys to vary the drive ratio, so there were no gears to shift, no clutch to work, and shifting was automatic. It was more efficient than a standard torque-converter automatic, easier to use than a manual gearshift. This worked fine on the tiny DAF 600 and its successor 750 and Daffodil models with their weak two-cylinder engines and light weight. Start putting more power in or pulling heavier loads, and slip became an issue. Development led to metal bands and then electronic controls so that now literally dozens of models, some quite large and heavy, employ CVTs. DAF spun off a separate company to make the drive belts in the 1970s, shortly before the car company was sold to Volvo, and Paccar snapped up the trucking side of the business. Bosch took over the drive-belt business, which has manufactured more than 10 million belts.The French company Panhard "invented" the steering wheel, first on a racing car in 1894 and soon after on passenger cars (although the transition from tiller to wheel seems obvious enough given centuries of ships using wheels). In America, Packard scored an early "first" by putting a wheel in its 1899 cars. So far so good, but it was all muscle work and as cars grew bigger and heavier, steering got harder.---Trucks, being heavier, needed and used assist mechanisms first. A hydraulic system initially demonstrated in 1926 at Pierce-Arrow was refined at General Motors and then at parts-maker Bendix. The latter made systems for WWII-era military trucks and armored vehicles. Chrysler's "Hydra-Guide" appears to be the first such system on a passenger car, the 1951 Imperial. GM followed on 1952 Cadillacs.---Of late, these hydraulic systems are being replaced by those using electric motors to generate the power assist. More energy-efficient because they don't need the engine-driven pump that pressurizes hydraulic fluid, electric-power-assisted steering (EPAS) maintains the mechanical connection to the wheels so, like the older variety, the driver can still steer if the assist fails, although it takes much more physical effort. That physical connection is severed in "steer-by-wire" systems that have the electric motor drive the steering mechanism directly, a concern that delayed implementation. There's a backup system in case of failure incorporated into the first steer-by-wire car to market, the 2014 Infiniti Q50. In Car and Driver testing the system was found wanting in road feel.Lots of cars today boast "direct injection," so it seems commonplace, but that's only a recent development. Getting the fuel into the cylinders of an internal-combustion engine takes some ingenuity, and it's been a long road of "firsts" along the way between the late 19th century and the early 21st. The basic carburetor that served to blend fuel vapors with air and deliver the mixture to the intake manifold was one of the "firsts" on the 1886 car devised by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach (some time before they joined forces with Karl Benz). Theirs is often regarded as the first car, and with refinements this carburetor system managed the task well enough for most cars for more than 80 years.---Fuel injection, which allows finer control of the mixture by spraying atomized fuel, was first managed by mechanical means and was a key element for the development of compression-ignition (diesel) engines in the 1920s. There, and in WWII aviation engines, the fuel was most often injected directly into the combustion chamber, known as "direct injection." When injection started showing up in postwar gasoline production cars, there were dozens of variations but this direct-injection form was rare. One exception was the 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL that, like that era's M-B racing cars, used a Bosch-developed mechanical direct-injection system. (Some credit a 1952 Goliath with a two-stroke engine that also employed Bosch direct injection, but Goliath was selling city cars in Europe only, and most of those cars had to have their injection replaced with carburetors because they failed.) The 300SL's "first" is often qualified as the first "production sports car" with fuel injection.---It's easier and cheaper to design and build injectors that don't have to survive the hostile environment of a combustion chamber, so other pioneers in the late 1950s used systems that simply replaced the carburetor's role in delivering fuel into the intake manifold. This generally meant a constant, though modulated, stream of fuel to mix with air drawn in through a throttle mechanism, hence "throttle-body fuel injection." As emissions regulations and fuel efficiency became growing concerns, it became worthwhile to provide a separate injector for each cylinder, delivering a precisely metered dose of fuel only during the intake phase in that port, or "port fuel injection." Another worthy refinement was to manage the fuel electronically. While American Motors built prototype Rambler Rebels in 1957 using a Bendix electronic system, it didn't go into production, leaving "first" honors to Chrysler's 1958 "Electrojector" system on that model year's Chrysler 300D, De Soto Adventurer, Dodge D-500, and Plymouth Savoy. Only 35 buyers took the pricey option, and most had it replaced with the standard carburetor after it proved unreliable. So, perhaps the 1968 Volkswagen Type 3, which had the latest Bosch "D-Jetronic" system, could be considered the "first" successful electronic-injected car. Still, it delivered fuel to the manifold, not into the combustion chamber.---It wasn't until 1996 that modern gasoline direct injection with electronic management appeared on the market. Mitsubishi gets the honors, first on the four-cylinder Galant sedan and on a V-6 the next year. The advantage: improved efficiency, yielding the magic trick of making more power while also getting better fuel economy. In the first five years, Mitsubishi built one-million cars with this GDI, well ahead of the rest of the industry. That Mitsubishi has all but disappeared from the U.S. automotive market suggests, again, that getting there first isn't always a magic bullet for sales leadership. Or maybe that the company should have brought it here earlier instead of restricting initial sales to Asia and Europe. One challenge: New technology is generally more expensive, at least initially, and the advantage to the buyer isn't always evident. Beginning in 2004, German luxury brandsWhere V-8s were once the American norm, today's most popular engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder unit that makes enough power to push around your two-ton crossover cocoon courtesy of turbocharging.---A turbocharger is a turbine wheel driven by the exhaust gases, linked to a second turbine that compresses the air going into the engine. Packing more air into the combustion chamber allows for more fuel and a bigger bang on each power stroke. (A supercharger does the same job using a belt-driven compressor rather than one using the otherwise wasted energy in the exhaust gases). --In aircraft, turbos allowed their engines to keep running in the less-dense air at higher altitudes. The first production cars with turbocharging came from General Motors, the 1962 Corvair and Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire, which had very different engines and systems. The Corvair's flat-six (in the photo), originally rated at 90 to 110 horsepower, went to 150 and, later, 180 horses courtesy of the turbo. The Jetfire's V-8 got to 215 horsepower using water/methanol injection to prevent pre-ignition (ping) in its high-compression (10.5:1) combustion chambers.---It was 1973 before BMW put turbocharging and fuel injection on the same production-car engine (the 2002 Tii Turbo) and 1976 before Saab took the technology mainstream. Saab went decades arguing that a 2.0-liter turbocharged four was ideal. Now nearly everyone agrees, but Saab didn't survive to say "told you so."Driving all four wheels was tried by several inventors in the horseless-carriage era. A 1902 Spyker (Dutch) shown in 1903 most often gets credit as the first four-wheel-drive car, and by 1911 America's FWD company incorporated the technology into its name (F standing for Four, rather than Front). ---Although Miller had four-wheel-drive racing cars at Indianapolis in 1932, Oshkosh (1917) and Dodge (1934) found a real market for it in their trucks. Military applications in WWII on trucks and, notably, the Jeep advanced the technology so that after the war it showed up on the Unimog (1946), the Land Rover (1948), and the Toyota Land Cruiser (1951, although it didn't get that name until 1954). In all these, though, four-wheel drive was there to enhance off-road ability and not really useful for parents who just want to get the carpool through a snowstorm to hockey practice.---Automotive four-wheel drive really starts with a system devised by Harry Ferguson, whose tractor-making concern spawned Ferguson Research to develop it. First applied to a Formula 1 racing car in which Stirling Moss won a 1961 race on a rain-soaked track, the "Ferguson Formula" four-wheel-drive system went into production under the 1966 Jensen FF (bottom picture), which also had anti-lock disc brakes. Production numbers were small and the price high, but the Jensen was easily the safest high-performance car of its era. Mass-market four-wheel drive in cars began in 1974 with the Subaru Leone (top photo). The AMC Eagle 4x4 of 1979 and the Audi Quattro of 1981 deserve some credit for popularizing the notion of driving all four wheels on your daily driver. Now, it appears on more than one-third of vehicles sold in the United States.The first to offer a seatbelt in a production car was Nash in 1949, followed by Ford in 1955; Saab made them standard equipment in 1958. These were lap belts like those racers had started using some years earlier. When offered as options they didn't sell very well, although these two-point belt systems became more popular in the early 1960s. Volvo (pictured) still grounds its safety sales pitch in the company's invention of the three-point belt with a shoulder strap to restrain the torso. Volvo made it standard in 1959. Inventor Nils Bohlin had been hired the year before (from Saab, where he'd created the ejector seat for jet fighters) and charged with making Volvo's cars safer. The company patented the three-point belt but offered to let all automakers use it for free. This did not prevent others from coming up with messy two-belt "solutions" when U.S. regulators required shoulder harnesses starting in 1968.Although the first patents and research on airbag technology date to the early 1950s, it was the 1973 Oldsmobile Toronado that was first available to the public with one. And we mean one. It was for the front-seat passenger. In 1974 (on ’75 models), the option appeared on full-size Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac models for both driver and passenger. The photo shows a 1975 Buick Electra with the option. There was a lot of pushing and pulling between government and industry, with the regulators first settling for any "passive" safety device as a requirement, leading the industry to meet the standard with automated safety belts while restricting airbags to optional equipment only on some models. It wasn't until the 1998 model year that driver- and passenger-side airbags or "supplemental restraint systems" (SRS) became mandatory standard equipment.Opening and closing the window—if the car had them—was about as close to "climate control" as early cars offered. Aftermarket add-ons that captured heat from the exhaust system (a dangerous source), heated a separate water supply, or used electricity to emit tepid warmth all arose in the 1910s and 1920s. The modern heater core, a secondary radiator into which engine coolant circulates to warm the interior of the car, started showing up as an accessory add-on in the late 1920s and Cadillacs had it in 1926 (top left photo). It wasn't until 1938 that Nash was first to manage ventilation drawing air through the heater core from outside the car, though. The notion didn't really spread that rapidly . . . more than 30 years later, a heater was still optional on cheap cars. Dealer jargon for a basic car without options was one with "no stove (heater), no harp (radio)." First with air-conditioning was the 1940 Packard (top right image). It was a two-year option, matched by Cadillac and Chrysler in 1941—then came WWII. Combining A/C, heat, and fresh air to hit a target temperature set by the car's occupants began with Nash in 1954, but it wasn't until 10 years later that the 1964 Cadillac (bottom image) successfully automated what we'd recognize as climate control like today's.Starting the engine, keeping it running, and powering the lights was about all early automotive electrical systems could manage, so the first radios were add-ons with their own batteries. Chevrolet had a pricey option in 1922, but until 1927, interference from the ignition system made even the best radios unusable with the car in motion.---This began changing in 1930 with the introduction of the Motorola AM radio, still an aftermarket add-on that took days to install and had its own battery. It wasn't until 1935 that Motorolas like that in the bottom left photo became commonplace in cars from the factory, when Chevrolet was first to offer that option.---The 1953 Becker Mexico, top photo, not only had both AM and FM reception but a station-search function.---Sirius and XM—then competing but now merged—launched satellites in 2001. In-car receivers for the subscription service appear in more than half of the new cars sold in America today.Nice as it was to have radio in the car, what came through the speakers was chosen by the broadcasters, not the car's occupants. Bypassing the gatekeepers to dial up your own tunes began with the 1956 Chrysler Highway Hi-Fi, (top left) a vinyl record player. In a car. To keep it from skipping constantly, it rotated the record at slower speeds and the arm with the needle was designed to prevent it sliding across the record and scratching. This was not very effective, however, and the need to buy specific records designed for the car's players didn't appeal to owners and it faded fast.---An improvement was the eight-track tape player (bottom left) that first came as an aftermarket add-on. Ford was first to offer it from the factory, in 1965.---Cassette tapes, which opened the door to the personal mix tape in addition to commercial albums, turned up on the aftermarket in 1968, and you could still find the option on many cars built through 2010. ----Factory-installed Compact Disc (CD) players started with the 1985 Becker Mexico Compact Disc offered by Mercedes-Benz. In the U.S., the 1987 Lincoln Town Car offered the "luxury" option.Power windows first appeared on 1941 model-year Packard 180s. The window "lifts" used hydraulics to power the operation, managed by electric switches. These were essentially a development from the technology used to operate power-folding tops on convertibles and were also employed to power seats on various luxury cars in the immediate postwar years. In 1951, the Chrysler Imperial (previously cited for its power steering) had electric power windows. Today, power windows are so much the standard that young drivers are often mystified when they encounter the rare hand-cranked window.While there are various assertions that a GM engineer patented the idea in the mid-1950s, the first production car with the option was the 1966 Cadillac DeVille (bottom) photo. Swedes like to take credit for making them standard, for the driver’s seat only, on the 1972 Saab 99 (top right photo) and 96.Massaging seats were first offered on 2000-model Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac cars. A comparison of recent offerings can be found here.Touchscreens manage all kinds of functions on your 2016 cars but they were an amazing thing to see—in all their monochromatic glory—when the first ones appeared on the 1986 Buick Riviera. They managed the radio, climate controls, trip computer, and what GM maddeningly insisted on calling "gages."Before there were Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), Honda took a run at an electronic in-car navigation system it called the Electro Gyrocator. Take a CRT monitor with a moving dot that could trace a line, overlay it with acetate maps (Tokyo only), and then try to make the phosphorescent dot follow the same route you had pre-marked with the Honda-provided pens.---The dot moved in accordance with input from an inertial guidance system (like those missiles and aircraft used pre-GPS), and Honda invented and patented a gas-rate gyroscope to manage the task. The guidance system was more accurate than the maps available, so those had to be redrawn for the purpose. If you lived in Tokyo and could afford to throw down a couple grand atop the price of your Accord, the Electro Gyrocator option might help you get somewhere without getting lost.---We kid. Honda was way ahead of the industry here and although some of its technology was just too early, it had a usable system using digital maps to offer on its 1990 Legend. It wasn't GPS, though. And that was what in-car navigation really needed.Early GPS advocates carried their handheld units into cars in the early 1990s, but Oldsmobile was first in the U.S. to offer a system made to work in a car. The Guidestar system was a $2000 option in the 1995 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight. A test run in rental cars, conducted with AAA and centered around Orlando, Florida, had proved the concept starting in 1992. Sadly, GM had given up on the touchscreen for a while by ’95, so there was no place for the unit in-dash and it had to sit on a stalk on the center console. It also wasn't all that accurate, and decent digital maps were still a decade or more away, but dang, it was first.Head-up displays were invented for jet-fighter pilots but are found in even inexpensive compact cars today. This, like touchscreens and GPS navigation, was a side benefit of General Motors’ ownership of high-tech companies including Hughes and EDS. GM first offered the option on the 1988 Cutlass Supreme Indy Pace Car replica. That was an awful car, actually, so luckily GM rolled it into other models. Among them was the Corvette, which got the industry's first color HUD in 1998 when the C5 generation debuted. Our photo shows the display as it was used on a C6 Corvette.Cadillac also brought night vision from Hughes into cars, pioneering with the classic infrared green-screen variety on the 2000 DeVille. Technology has advanced on several fronts since, as you can see here.The 1970 Lincoln Continental offered the luxury of "variable speed" windshield wipers. More commonly called "intermittent" wipers today, the technology was invented and patented by Robert Kearnes, who tested it on his Ford. His battle to have his patents recognized not only at Ford but at all the other automakers who pretty much stole it is chronicled in the underrated 2008 documentary film Flash of Genius. If you've not seen it, do so.You're driving down a dark road and need the high-beam headlights, but there's oncoming traffic. You have to keep dimming and then relighting the "brights." The Autronic Eye appeared in 1952 Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles and rolled out to other GM brands in 1953 to solve this problem. The "eye" sensed the lights of other cars and managed the dim/re-engage process for you. Clever as it seems, systems that do this reliably using modern electronics really didn't start becoming common until the past few years.---This is not to be confused with the function of the Twilight Sentinel, another GM-brand innovation that appeared on the 1960 Buick LeSabre. Twilight Sentinel (a brand name GM still uses in owner manuals and such) simply detects that it's dark out and turns on the lights, or that it's light and turns them off.Four-wheel steering is showing up again on luxury and performance models from several makers. Some horseless-carriage-era cars had steering for all four wheels, but the front-wheels-only variety still dominates because it does the job well enough. Getting the rear wheels to help via a passive mechanism that Porsche called its Weissach axle improved the handling of the 928 in 1978. Active steering of the rear wheels using hydraulic rams to push on suspension elements appeared on the 1982 Nissan Skyline R31. Nissan called the system HICAS, but that car wasn't sold in the United States. Honda was first to bring active four-wheel steering to America in 1987 on its Prelude. At high speeds, the rear wheels steered in the same direction as the fronts, but at low speeds they steered the opposite way to improve maneuverability, particularly useful for parking. Many other makers used variations of this system. It was most popular in Japan where Skylines and Preludes both kept their systems through 2001. Modern systems apply more advanced electronics, but the benefits remain subtle and fall short of compelling when compared with the cost.Fans of burnouts and drifting may enjoy turning their expensive tires into so much smoke, but if you're just trying to get somewhere, wheelspin is a problem. The 1971 Buick MaxTrac traction-control system was the first such to reduce power when the car detected wheel-slip under throttle. When it worked (not reliably), it did so by interrupting the ignition spark. This induced misfire did not pass muster as emission rules became more stringent and big belches of unburned hydrocarbons became forbidden. Better ways, such as applying a brake, cutting back on fuel, and retarding the timing were brought to bear in 1987 when Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Toyota all introduced the first modern traction-control systems.Stability ControlAdjusting the suspension on the go? Cadillac and Packard offered the option to drivers in 1932, via a lever that mechanically adjusted the dampers. Yes, your car's computer-controlled multi-mode system is far more sophisticated. Oh, and those trick, fast-reacting shocks full of magnetized fluid that adjust mid-stroke? GM did that first, too . . . on the 2002 Cadillac STS and the 50th Anniversary Corvette (a 2003 model C5).An active suspension anticipates and adjusts for road-surface irregularities and the longitudinal and lateral accelerations of motion, rather than just reacting to conditions as they arise. They first had their heyday in the late 1980s and early ’90s, contemporaneous with the rise of other "active" systems like four-wheel steering. There were racing and concept precedents, but first to market with such a system was the Infiniti Q45a of 1990. Its "fully active suspension" (FAS) was more ambitious than the electronics of the day could manage, but the idea was influential in the widespread adoption of what are today called "adaptive" or "semi-active" suspensions that adjust rapidly and coordinate with the car's other systems to optimize ride and handling. Modern sensor technologies, contributors to the push toward autonomous cars, are making it easier for the car to "read" the road ahead and adjust the suspension accordingly.That's the busy part of a 2014 Chevy Camaro braking system designed for track use in our photo, but the point is: time to stop. Early cars had really primitive braking systems, and a lot of "firsts" ensued. The first hydraulic (rather than cable-actuated) four-wheel system came in 1921 on a Duesenberg; vacuum-boosted or "power" brakes first appeared on the 1928 Pierce-Arrow. Disc brakes came over from aviation, first on Jaguar racing cars, but in production the 1949 Crosley Hotshot, a tiny American car, used discs. --Anti-lock brakes first appeared in production on the Jensen FF (the same car seen in the four-wheel-drive item), again borrowing aviation technology with Dunlop's "Maxaret" mechanical system. The first modern, electronic-controlled ABS appeared on the rear axle in a few 1969 Lincolns, then Chrysler and Bendix made it work right on the 1971 Imperial. Again, though, it was rear-axle only. GM also had rear-wheel ABS on 1971 Cadillacs. The real thing, four-channel (four wheels, each controlled separately) finally showed up in 1985 on the Lincoln Mark VII LSC (and on the Ford Scorpio in Europe).
from Car and Driver Blog

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