The Triumph of Technology: 3 Ways Computers Make Cars Better

KITT_Interior

Knight Rider’s KITT interior. Photo by Tabercil.

Think about the muscle-car era, back in the ’60s and early ’70s. If you know anyone who grew up during that era, chances are that his or her father taught them how to wrench on engines from a young age (just like this ol’ wrencher). And you’ve probably heard them lament the fact that fathers just don’t teach their kids how to fix cars anymore.

But there’s a good reason for that: modern cars are as much about computers as they are about carburetors. Maybe more so.

To fix cars today, you often need a special computer just to diagnose the problem, and you may need advanced electrical knowledge to do the job. How about rebuilding a problematic part? If it’s connected to the car’s computer network, you better be an actual electrical engineer, or else you might just make things worse.

So that’s why kids don’t grow up with grease on their fingers anymore.

But they do grow up driving some truly incredible machines.

In this installment, I don’t want to bemoan the fact that times have changed. Even as a weathered, ahem, older car fan, I want to celebrate it. Because the truth is, technology has taken the automobile to heights that were scarcely imaginable 50 years ago.

Let’s look at three specific ways that the triumph of technology has changed cars for the better.

Better Handling

You may not think of suspensions as having much to do with computers, but when you take a closer look, you realize that they’ve got a lot to do with ones and zeros. Consider electric power steering, for example — back in the hydraulic days, we used to talk about the steering of a car as being “heavy” or “light,” but today you can buy a Hyundai or Kia for less than $20,000 that provides electronically adjustable steering effort. Want to move up the price ladder a little? Adaptive suspension dampers with selectable modes are proliferating across the industry, allowing drivers to choose a firm or compliant ride as conditions dictate. And then there are roll-resistant systems like Mercedes-Benz’s Active Body Control that keep the car eerily flat through fast corners. It’s hard to see these technologies as anything but a win for most drivers.

Better Powertrains

We could devote a whole feature to this category alone. Seemingly every aspect of automotive power generation and delivery has been revolutionized. On the engine front, perhaps the biggest news is the rise of advanced computer-controlled turbocharging, enabling small-displacement engines to deliver strong, lag-free acceleration with little if any penalty at the pump. Transmissions have benefited, too, with advancements ranging from automatic rev-matched downshifts for manuals to launch control and adaptive shift programs for automatics. And then there’s the way the power gets to the pavement — increasingly, differentials are equipped with torque-vectoring technology that transfers power laterally to ensure that the tires with the best traction are getting the most oomph. There were certainly fast and capable cars back in the day, but the computer-enabled precision and efficiency we see today is simply unprecedented.

Better Interiors

This one’s really night-and-day. Cars used to be transportation devices with radios thrown in for your driving pleasure, but now they’re like rolling entertainment chambers. What’s interesting is that mass-market personal computers go back to the late ’70s, but it took another few decades for dashboard computer systems — or “infotainment systems,” in current parlance — to become commonplace. But in 2015, you can get an infotainment system with a high-resolution color display in virtually every economy car on the market. Who would argue that cars used to be better when all you had was AM and FM? Now you can enjoy 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 in an automotive interior.

The Power of Change

As a longtime DIY’er and car enthusiast, I’ve done my share of grumbling about the effects of technology on the character and feel of modern cars. Still, I have to admit that cars today are astonishingly capable machines thanks to their computerized components. What are some of your favorite developments in automotive technology? Shout it out for us in the comments

Editor’s note: High tech or no tech, count on Advance Auto Parts for a large selection of parts, tools and accessories to get your projects done right. Buy online, pick up in-store in 30 minutes.

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