Contrary to much rhetoric that suggests otherwise, advancements in automotive technology are evolutionary, not revolutionary. From one year to the next, there is seldom any major technical innovation that sweeps instantly through the industry.
For that reason, it’s not always apparent just how much progress is being made as it’s happening. But if we look back three decades to when Wheels was born, the extent of that progress is truly astounding.
I was an automotive test and development engineer back then, working with several major automakers, so I had a front-row seat to the state of the science. And it was light years distant from where we are now.
Consider, for example, that ABS was a novelty available in just a few high-priced cars. That it would ultimately become standard equipment and lead to the development of ESC (Electronic Stability Control), which is now mandatory on every new vehicle sold in Canada, wasn’t even on our radar.
Nor was any notion of the on-board radar, laser, infrared and ultrasonic sensor systems that now enable so many of the safety features found on even the most basic of vehicles. Aftermarket radar detectors were at the cutting edge of electronics technology.
There was no need for Bluetooth cellphone connectivity because there weren’t any cellphones. And no Internet, either. Navigation systems of the day were folded paper road maps, available from most gas stations.
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In-car infotainment was limited primarily to AM or FM radio and cassette tape players. Aftermarket CD players had been available for a couple years but it would be a couple more before they were widely offered as factory options.
The first in-car touch-screen would be introduced in the 1989 Buick Reatta. It included radio and climate control functions, a trip computer and a few other functions, but it was a complete disaster. It would be several more years before the concept gained even a small foothold.
On the subject of climate control, air-conditioning was still a luxury option on most cars, and it used Freon 12 as a refrigerant — a chemical that would ultimately be banned because of its deleterious effect on the earth’s ozone layer. The groundbreaking international agreement to ban the stuff was known as the Montreal Protocol.
Back on the safety front, airbags, like ABS, were still something of a novelty. A driver’s-side airbag wasn’t required to meet safety regulations until 1989, and it would be almost another decade before passenger airbags become mandatory. Side, head, rear and knee airbags didn’t exist.
On the powertrain front, engines and vehicles both had undergone downsizing for the previous decade, to help meet ever-tightening emissions standards.
Car weights were at their lowest level in modern times when Wheels was launched, according to a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Much of the weight they’ve gained since has been necessary to meet new government-mandated safety and emissions regulations.
Four-cylinder engine popularity peaked about then, at around 55 per cent of the market. Engine size had bottomed out and remained relatively stable for the next couple of decades. But power was on the increase, having reached its nadir in 1981.
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It has continued to increase ever since as engineers keep pushing the envelope of specific power output — horsepower per litre of engine displacement. It has more than doubled since then, on average, thanks to ongoing technical advances.
At that time, about a quarter of new cars still had carburetors. Another third employed a simple form of throttle-body fuel injection and the rest had adopted then-cutting-edge electronic port injection. But the introduction of gasoline direct injection, as is common today, was still a couple of decades away.
Multivalve 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.
Manual transmissions were still common, particularly in small cars, as were three-speed automatics, but four-speed automatics with lock-up torque converters were becoming the norm. No five, six, seven, eight or nine-speeds, however. And no CVTs.
Some engineering students may have been experimenting with hybrids, but they 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, would drive most of the advancements we’ve made since then in every area of the vehicle.
We’ve come a long way in 30 years.
Gerry Malloy has been a long-time contributor to Toronto Star Wheels. His column, Tech Talk, was a popular feature for many years. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org