Look back to look ahead

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Automotive technology has come a long way


We’ve been hearing a lot lately about disruptive technologies. But the fact is, automotive technology doesn’t change overnight.

Even if some new feature such as autonomous capability may seem disruptive when it arrives on the market, it got there through an evolutionary process.

The pace of evolution from one year to the next may sometimes seem rather slow. But if we look back several years, or even decades, then the comparison can be quite dramatic.

I had two occasions to do just that recently, metaphorically time-traveling back 30 and 60 years. And those experiences were enlightening.

My 60-year journey into yesteryear came at the wheel of a 1957 Ford Thunderbird, thanks to the folks at Hagerty Classic Car Insurance. That T-Bird was an icon of its time that has long been a staple on my personal dream-car garage list.

It still is, but driving the car now puts that dream into a different perspective.

To begin with, in spite of its much greater size, it was as difficult to get my aging XL frame into and out of as a modern-day Miata.

The vehicle had a bench seat, no buckets, optional seat belts without shoulder belts, and a bus-sized steering wheel with a finger-thick rim that perched right in my lap – not adjustable, of course.

The power steering was effortless but gave no feedback at all and took about twice as much rotation as a modern car to turn a corner. The pedal effort to slow down even moderately with its all-drum brakes was huge and the retardation rate truly scary.

The high pedal position required to accommodate its long travel required lifting my knee close to my chin; no pivoting on one’s heel from accelerator to brake!

The only steering stalk control was the turn signal with separate knobs low on the IP for lights, wipers. The vacuum-operated wipers didn’t operate in parallel so, the area cleared was minimal and vision wasn’t helped in the rain by a very slow-to-clear defogger.

Quality levels, in terms of both materials and fits, were light years from what we currently expect.

I also reflected on a 1987 Lincoln Mk VII LSC I owned back then. While its fundamentals were the same as for the older T-Bird – V-8 power up front and rear-wheel-drive – it was much improved in most respects.

It had four-wheel-disc brakes and was one of the first cars available with ABS, for example, a novelty offered on just a few high-priced cars at the time. But there was no notion back then of ESC (Electronic Stability Control), which is now mandatory on every new vehicle.

Airbags, like ABS, were still a novelty, not required for the driver until 1989 or for almost another decade for the front passenger. Side, head, rear and knee airbags didn’t exist.

Neither did any of the on-board radar, laser, infrared and ultrasonic sensor systems that now enable so many of the safety features on even the most basic of vehicles. There was no Bluetooth connectivity because there were no cell-phones or Internet. Navigation systems were folded paper road maps.

In-car infotainment was an AM/FM radio and cassette tape player. It would take a couple more years before CD players were widely offered as factory options. The first in-car touch-screen wouldn’t arrive until 1989 and it was a complete disaster, setting that concept back for almost another decade.

The big V-8 under the Lincoln’s hood had a now-rudimentary form of electronic port fuel-injection, although many cars of the period still used carburetors. And four-speed automatic transmissions with lock-up torque converters were just becoming the new norm.

Air-conditioning, still a luxury option on most cars, used Freon 12 as a refrigerant, which would ultimately be banned because of its deleterious effect on the earth’s ozone layer.

Multi-valve engines were just beginning to make an appearance but variable valve timing was still far from widespread adoption. And turbocharging was primarily limited to high performance engines, usually with attendant reliability issues.

Hybrids were still a decade away from production. And nobody took the idea of an electric car seriously until GM’s experimentation with the EV1 10 years hence.

Perhaps most importantly, the electronics revolution was just beginning, and that, more than anything else, is why the pace of technology evolution over the past 30 years has been much greater than in the 30 years before.

To paraphrase an old Virginia Slim’s cigarette ad, “We’ve come a long way baby.”

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