Auto industry steers in radical direction
There were few advances made to the North American automobile between 1939 (automatic transmission) and the early 1970s that were truly remarkable, and the technology the D etroit-based companies developed in the early 1970s to accommodate the U.S. government’s new restrictions on emissions was done under regulatory duress.
That’s not the case today. Modern cars are bristling with new technology and astonishing advancements, much of it driven by consumer preference, intense competition and a changing attitude toward personal transportation.
Within only a few years, every car company has developed either hybrid-electric vehicles or vehicles that operate only with electricity.
More importantly, every company is now rushing to develop self-driving cars.
Outside those examples are a host of smaller trends: Multiple cameras, vehicles that brake on their own to avoid collision, vehicles able to park themselves and vehicles that allow the driver and passenger to access the Internet.
Not to be forgotten are gasoline engines that, when mated with superior automatic transmissions, are able to deliver incredible fuel economy.
There are elements to modern car design so ubiquitous their innovation merits no attention today. They include air bags (GM, 1973), the three-point seatbelt ( Volvo, 1959), anionic electronic coating to inhibit rust (Ford, 1958) and air conditioning (Nash, 1954).
All of these innovations are being showcased at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, beginning on Saturday, but the over-arching push seems to be the self-driving automobile, an idea as foreign a concept to some people as air conditioning must have been in the 1930s.
Indeed, while past innovations by the Detroit-based industry sought to improve fuel economy and safety while enhancing the driving experience, the self-driving car would satisfy the first two objectives while eliminating the third.
It’s a radical thought, because the automobile industry from the very start was predicated on the idea of personal independence and mobility. Self-driving cars demand dependence — a former driver ceding control and taking the back seat to technology. It’s a dramatic approach to personal transportation, and the antithesis of the cultural impulses that have allowed traditional Detroit car companies to thrive.
But that these same companies are eagerly embracing the technology suggests selfdriving cars will some day be as ubiquitous as the three-point seatbelt. Peter Epp