BACK TO THE FUTURE: 32 car technology advances since 1985


Pioneer CDX capacitor

In “Back to the Future Part 2,” Marty McFly used a specially modified DeLorean to travel from 1985 to 2015.

Here, he encounters technological wonders like flying cars, hoverboards, and self-lacing sneakers: two out of three aren’t so good.

Here we are, with 2015 already two years in the past—and not a flying car in sight, apart from some prototypes.

The automobile that we have right now is basically still the same as it was in 1985. Even Marty McFly or Doc Brown can hop into a current model sports car, and easily drive it the way they would be used to.

Starting, driving, braking, fueling would all be quite familiar even to someone from 1955—which is not to say that automotive technology hasn’t advanced in the 32 years.

Then and now: we take a look at the changes of 32 technologies in the automotive industry over the years.

1. Cassette deck

The usual in-car entertainment in 1985 centered around an audio cassette player mounted in the instument panel.

These gradually advanced with such improvements as auto-reverse and metal-tape compatibility—which didn’t help in the few occasions that the player would ’eat’ the tape.

There went your mixtape.

2. CD player

Audio went digital with the first portable CD player, just two months prior to 1985. These were first installed on awkward mounting arms, then later incorporated into the cars’ head units themselves.

Quite a feat then, to have a disc-based player that didn’t skip even as the car drove on uneven roads.

3. Bluetooth and streaming

The iPod, then later the iPhone and other smartphones, paved the way for music streaming.

Now you don’t even need actual copy of a song—it can all be piped over through the wireless Internet.

Hybrid system monitor in the 2018 Lexus LS

4. GPS navigation

This is one of the biggest advancements in automotive convenience. Where before, we had to print out maps and directions, now a computer can guide us to our destination, turn by turn.

Later, Waze, Google Maps, and other apps incorporated traffic data into their guidance directions.

5. Cellular phone connectivity

The car can communicate with a service center in case of car trouble, or an emergency service if it detects that it has crashed.

6. HID headlamps

Yellowish standard lighting gave way to whiter halogen lamps, then later the bluish-white glow of xenon-gas headlamps. They were brighter and more efficient

7. LED headlamps

Even more efficient are solid-state lighting based on LEDs. These are brighter and use less energy, and switch on nearly instantly.

BMW i8 hybrid sports car uses lasers to double the range from standard LED headlamps

Their relatively cooler running allows for slimmer housings and more attractive tail light designs.

8. Laser lights

The next generation of lighting uses lasers to project a high beam up to 600 meters in front of the car, double the range of LED headlamps. It’s also more power and space-efficient than LED bulbs.

9. Stability control system

Traction control was introduced by Mercedes-Benz and Toyota in 1987. This helped the drive wheels maintain traction while accelerating.

In 1995 came a system that helped the driver stick to his intended course by selectively applying the car’s individual brakes.

10. Automatic braking

The latest safety systems use laser and radar sensors to monitor traffic and potential obstacles, then issue an audible warning and automatically apply the brakes to avoid or mitigate a collision.

Subaru’s camera-based Eyesight system has this capability and will soon debut on upcoming models.

11. Hybrid system

Gasoline and diesel engines are powerful and compact enough for automotive use, but very inefficient.

Enter electric assist systems, which combine with combustion engines to provide efficient running particularly in stop-and-go traffic. These may be a mere step towards the next advancement.

12. Electric cars

Not exactly new, as some early automobiles were powered by electricity. Today, they are emerging as an alternative to combustion-engined cars.

Mercedes-Benz introduced electronic stability control, a standard feature carried by the A-Class.

Range is increasing with each generation, and performance can be mind-blowing, as Elon Musk likes to say.

Case in point is his new Tesla Roadster, capable of 0-100kph in less than two seconds.

13. Active suspension damping

There’s always been a tradeoff between a comfortable ride and responsive handling, but there’s now a way to deliver both with the help of suspension components that can change their settings electronically and rapidly in response to multiple sensors.

14. Self-cleaning paint

Nissan recently featured a Leaf with a coating that repels water and oil. Dirt and grime slide off the car instead of leaving any marks.

The reasoning is that the Leaf owner shouldn’t have to pull into a gas station—even for a car wash.

15. Self-repairing body panels

Body panels made from tough plastic spontaneously spring back into shape after being deformed.

16. Keyless entry

You can still lose your car keys, but if they’re in your pocket, you don’t have to dig around for them, thanks to sensors that can detect the key’s presence and unlock the door and start the engine—even open the trunk automatically.

17. Carbon fiber body construction

Formula One cars have been constructed from carbon fiber since 1981, but its use on road cars have been limited to expensive high-performance models like the McLaren F1.

Subaru Eyesight system helps drivers avoid a frontal collision

BMW has been introducing carbon fiber into more models, like the i3 and i8 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and the 7 Series sedan.

18. Reverse camera and sensors

Today’s cars tend to be larger, and consequently, having more blind spots. These safety devices are highly convenient, and even a must today.

19. Dashcam

Miniaturization allows motorists to record their vehicle’s journey, for safety and insurance claims.

20. On-board diagnostics

The latest technology allows easier diagnosis of vehicle system malfunctions by allowing users and manufacturers to monitor data from vehicle sensors.

21. Fuel injection

Engines run smoother and more efficiently by precisely atomizing fuel into an engine’s combustion chamber.

Modern diesels use a high-pressure common header (the common rail) to deliver fuel.

22. Variable valve timing

This feature altered the valve timing and lift of engine valves to allow engines to deliver more power at higher revs, while still giving good low-end torque.

VTEC, VVTi, and VANOS are some of the trade names for this innovation.

23. Run-flat tires

Dangerous tire separation and stopping by the side of the road to change a flat is a thing of the past, if you have a car equipped with these.

24. Autonomous driving

Allows a computer to drive the car using data from sensors and navigation systems.

A cutaway of Honda’s 1997 NSX with VTEC variable valve timing

This one is already a reality, with widespread use probably just around the corner.

25. Car sharing

This is a change in the very concept of owning a car. Seen partly in the use of apps like Grab and Uber, the premise has already been rolled out in cities like Singapore and New York.

26. Folding hardtops

Once a novelty seen in very large, expensive cars, the technology was adapted to small, pocket-sized sports cars like the Mercedes-Benz SLK and the Mazda MX-5 RF.

27. Active cruise control

A step towards autonomous driving, this feature is becoming available on even more vehicles. Takes some of the tedium from driving in bumper to bumper traffic.

28. Rain-sensing wipers

Never thought you needed it until you experience the convenience.

29. Turbocharging

Allows a small-displacement engine to develop the torque and power of a larger engine with less of a penalty in fuel consumption.

30. Continously variable transmissions

This pairs the engine with a pair of cones that allows infinite adjustment within a certain ratio—promotes fuel efficiency while elimnating shift shock

Honda VTEC system made a supercar out of the NSX, despite the modest engine size

31. App interaction with cars

You can now monitor your car and remotely start from a smartphone.

Soon, you can summon a self-driving car from its parking space from your watch.

32. High-tech displays

There used to be one main gauge: speedometer. Now, digital displays can show fuel consumption, entertainment, and navigation, all on the same digital display.

Prime examples are the Tesla Models S with its large central display, and the Model 3, which does away with conventional gauges altogether.

Today, cars still can’t fly. And no, we still can’t get our license plates on time.

But the next 32 years, even the next 3.2 years, will be full of changes for the automobile. It’s an exciting time, even if we still need roads where we’re going.

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