Modern cars are as much about computers as the muscle cars of the '60s and '70s were about carburetors. Technology has taken the automobile to heights scarcely imaginable 50 years ago, just as developments in vehicle technology 50 years from now haven't even been imagined yet. Here are three ways technology has changed cars for the better.
You may not think of steering and suspensions as having much to do with computers, but taking a closer look reveals an important relationship. Consider electric power steering—back in the day, a car's steering was described as being “heavy” or “light." Today, that terminology is no longer relevant as computers electronically adjust steering effort.
Adaptive suspension dampers are also computer controlled and allow the driver to select a mode based on driving and road conditions. Roll-resistant systems, such as those found in Mercedes-Benz’s Active Body Control, keep the car eerily flat through fast corners. For both drivers and passengers, this technology is a winning development.
We could devote a whole feature to this category alone. Seemingly every aspect of automotive power generation and delivery has been revolutionized by the computer. On the engine front, perhaps one of the biggest developments is the rise of advanced, computer-controlled turbocharging that enables small-displacement engines to deliver strong, lag-free acceleration with little if any penalty at the gas pump.
Transmissions have benefited, too, with advancements ranging from automatic revolution-matched downshifts for manuals to launch control and adaptive shift programs for automatics. And then there’s the transfer of power to the pavement. Increasingly, differentials are equipped with torque-vectoring technology that transfers power laterally, ensuring that the tire(s) with the best traction receives the most oomph. There were certainly fast and capable cars back in the day, but the computer-enabled precision and efficiency seen today is unprecedented.
This one’s really night-and-day. Cars used to be transportation devices with radios thrown in for driving pleasure, but now they’re like rolling entertainment chambers. What’s interesting is that mass-market personal computers go back to the late 70's, but it took several more decades for dashboard computer systems—or “infotainment systems”—to become commonplace.
Today, a vehicle infotainment system with a high-resolution color display is offered in virtually every vehicle on the market. Who would argue that cars used to be better when all they had was AM and FM radio, as compared to today's satellite radio, USB connectivity, Bluetooth phone and audio, home theater-quality sound reproduction, mobile-app integration and even Wi-Fi hotspot capability? Nostalgia dies hard, but even hardcore classic-car devotees know the truth: there’s never been a better time to hang out inside a vehicle.
The Power of Change
Today's vehicles are astonishingly capable machines thanks to their computerized components. What are some of your favorite developments in automotive computer technology? Shout it out for us in the comments.