George Kennedy and I attended a Buick presentation Tuesday night on the 2014 Lacrosse and Regal GS. Both cars are packed full of technology: on-demand all-wheel drive, imminent collision braking, lane departure warning and rear cross-traffic sensors that alert the driver when backing out of a parking spot: All awesome features that you wouldn’t have even though possible 25 years ago. It got us thinking about essential technologies that we now completely take for granted that spawned the incredible features accessible today. Here are five you should consider good fortune to have in every modern automobile:
Anti-Lock Brake Systems (ABS) allow the contact patches of a tire to maintain braking contact with the road surface under maximum braking maneuvers. Early auto manufacturers like the French master builder Voison tested aircraft-style threshold braking systems as early as 1929. Fully electronic ABS for aircraft arrived on the Concorde in the 1960s, and made its way into some automotive applications, like “Sure Brake” in the 1971 Imperial, and some Cadillacs in the mid-1970s.
Fully electronic, four-wheel ABS wouldn’t appear on many passenger cars until the 1980s. Amazingly, NHTSA still doesn’t mandate ABS for all automobiles in the United States, like the European Union has since 2007. However, it does mandate another feature, and that’s what makes ABS so critically important.
Since 2012, NHTSA has mandated that all cars in the United States be equipped with electronic stability control. The only thing that makes stability control work is ABS. It’s also the feature that helps traction control work. Thanks the wheel speed sensors and electronic control unit that makes ABS work, features like emergency braking. Without ABS, none of these features would be as universally adopted today.
Laminated Safety Glass
It’s kind of amazing to think that other than the ability to manufacture curved glass, your windshield has gone through no significant changes since safety glass was developed for automotive applications in the 1920s.
Before collision warnings, air bags and even seat belts, laminated glass or “safety glass” and tempered glass were at the forefront of saving lives in automobile crashes. Prior to 1927, the glass featured in automobiles was no different than the glass in your storm door: plate glass used more for its optical quality than any consideration for safety.
When auto traffic began to produce significant auto crashes, though, the qualities of plate glass made it a serious safety hazard. When plate glass breaks, it disintegrates into knife-like pieces that were tearing valuable customers to ribbons. It wasn’t until 1927 that auto manufacturers started using laminated safety glass windshields. Laminated safety glass – marketed under the Duplate® brand from PPG – is actually two thin sheets of glass with a polycarbonate film layered between. The interlayer holds the thin sheets of glass together when they shatter, preventing some of the horrific injuries caused by plate glass.
In the 1950s, glass manufacturers figured out how to manufacture curved safety glass, which was the last real significant change to windshields. A few things like tint, bonded moldings, ceramic bands that allow better urethane bonding on installation have come along in the meantime. In the 1980s, some auto manufacturers experimented with a second inner layer of polycarbonate that was intended to protect occupants from cuts if the windshield broke, but they quickly abandoned it because it was nearly impossible to keep clean.
Laminated glass is strong provided it’s fixed, either via a rubber gasket, or urethane adhesive bonding. Manufacturers used to use it in side windows, but because the side windows are designed to move up and down, it was commonplace to crack the glass.
By the 1950s, manufacturers were using curved glass, and in the 1970s and 1980s, flush-mounted glass with bonded moldings became much more commonplace. Safety glass won’t work in those applications.
Tempered glass became the standard for all side and back windows after about 1957. Tempered glass is thermally annealed to 720° Fahrenheit to increase its strength when compared to plate glass. It’s incredibly strong to a point, but when it breaks, it shatters into a gazillion tiny pieces, instead of breaking into shards like laminated glass.
While it helps reduce devastating injuries, its disadvantage is that it’s simply ineffective in occupant retention, which was a strong advantage of laminated glass in between the 1920s and 1950s. Once seatbelt adoption became widespread, that disadvantage became less of an issue.
Modern automobiles utilize direct ignition systems where individual ignition coils sit directly on top of the spark plugs, eliminating the need for distributors and even spark plug wires. None of that was possible prior to electronic ignition.
You saw a few electronic ignition systems in things like the Delco-Remy system in Coventry Climax and BRM Formula One engines in the early 1960s. Pontiac delivered the first production electronic ignition system, known as Delcotronic, as an option in 1963, the same feature offered in some Corvettes. Fiat offered the first standard electronic ignition across the board in 1968. Chrysler followed suit in 1971, and GM stepped up with HEI in 1973.
Electronic ignition systems revolutionized automotive maintenance. Prior to EI, you were in for a points adjustment at every 6,000 miles. Drivers had ignition tools in their glovebox as a matter of course, and a wet distributor meant you were spraying WD-40 under the cap if you expected your car to start. Electronic ignition changed all that.
It also ushered in a new era of engine management, allowing sophisticated computers to adjust engine timing to accommodate for driving styles and fuel quality. Electronic ignition allows for incredible gains in fuel economy and efficiency from a powerful engine.
Electronic Fuel Injection
The other half of the fuel economy equation comes courtesy of electronic fuel injection. Fuel injection has been in widespread use in diesel engines since the 1920s, but it wasn’t until World War II, when aircraft engines like the Junkers Jumo 210 and the BMW 801 started experiencing the benefits of direct fuel injection that gasoline engines really started to benefit from its adoption.
Most cars utilized carburetors to mix fuel and air prior to the early 1980s. At its core, a carburetor is nothing but a hole in the intake manifold with a flap to let in air, and another hole to let in fuel, fed by a low-pressure pump. They’re simple and cheap, but they’re notoriously inefficient, dumping a not-so-specific amount of fuel into a manifold, which then distributes fuel to individual cylinders.
Fuel injection puts fuel under pressure, and then metering that fuel to high pressure injectors that spray a specific fuel-air mixture into each combustion chamber. Early fuel injection systems were developed by Stuart Hilborn for racing applications. The 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SLR Stirling Moss drove to victory at the 1955 Mille Miglia used Bosch fuel injection, and Rochester developed a fuel injection system for the 1957 model year, in use on some 283-cu.in. V8s. Those systems were all mechanical, and several were “constant flow” injection systems that metered fuel through a central manifold of injection lines.
Electronic fuel injection arrived the same year as the Rochester system on the AMC Rambler Rebel, and later on the 1958 Chrysler 300D, DeSoto Adventurer, Dodge D-500 and Plymouth Fury. The Chrysler/Bendix Electrojector system eventually became the basis for Bosch’s electronic fuel injection system, D-Jetronic, and later L-Jetronic.
Along with the driveability benefits, electronic fuel injection offers greater efficiency, much lower emissions, greater reliability, more consistency, and even a greater acceptance of alternative fuels. In concert with electronic ignition, electronic fuel injection will keep internal combustion engines viable for the forseeable future.