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.

Ford trademarks “EcoBeast”

Ford EcoBoost Logo

As recently reported by Motrolix, Ford has made formal moves to trademark the name “EcoBeast,” an obvious reference to its massively successful EcoBoost engine line.

Filed this past week with the US Patent and Trademark Office, the application falls under the “automobiles and automobile engines” category within Goods and Services.

Here are some more details:

Ford EcoBeast trademark applicationFor the uninitiated, Ford’s EcoBoost engine can be found in its ever-popular F-150 trucks, and is known for its unique combination of power and fuel economy. It’s no surprise that “EcoBeast” has been used for some time as a nick-name by Ford enthusiasts, but what makes this new move by the company even more interesting is what comes next. Will Ford use EcoBeast as the moniker for a new line of mammoth pick-ups? A concept car? A higher-end line of engines?

Or, will the Ford Motor Company just let the trademark languish into obscurity as so many other massive corporations have done before, just to ensure no one else can use it.

What do you think?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Read the full story at Motrolix.

What’s the Downside of Heated Seats in Your Car?

car interior with car seats
When cars were first invented, riding in them could be downright chilly, especially during winter months. After all, these early-model vehicles were open bodied, so wind could whip around drivers and passengers alike as rain, snow, and/or sleet fell freely upon their heads. Glass windshields started to appear around 1907, breaking some of the wind, and motorists bundled up and put gas lamps in their cars to create some radiated heat, but still, it was cold.

A history of heat in cars

At the 13th National Automobile Show in New York, a mass production car debuted that was fully enclosed: the Hudson “Twenty,” which was produced in Detroit, starting on July 3, 1909. Because this car was a warmer ride, 4,000 vehicles sold that year—in spite of it having a nearly $1,000 price tag (about $26,000 today). Remember, car financing wasn’t typically available to buyers then. In 1910, Hudson built nearly 6,500 of these cars to continue to meet demand. By 1925, Hudson was the third largest US car manufacturer behind Ford and Chevrolet.

Although an enclosed car was warmer than an open-bodied one, traveling was still a cold proposition in the winter. Enterprising people tried to recycle exhaust fumes into their vehicles to benefit from small amounts of interior heat. This isn’t a particularly safe idea, though, and it couldn’t have smelled great, either, so inventors progressed and in 1929, a hot air heater was available in the Ford Model A. It took a while to fire up and it provided inconsistent engine-generated heat, but it was safer than inhaling exhaust fumes. Ford continued their innovation and in 1933 installed the first in-dash heating unit, which was gas powered.

In the midst of Ford inventing, General Motors created a heater that used redirected engine coolant, debuting the first modern heater core in 1930. Although improvements are continually being made in the auto world, including with heaters, this 1930 model is still the basis of what’s being used today.

Heated car seats: the history

Although car heaters made driving far more comfortable, a heated car seat would provide targeted heat to one particular body part, an appealing idea to many. It’s reported in many places online that General Motors (GM) tested car seat heaters as early as 1939 on select models, but no additional details or sources seem to be available. GM was a pioneer in the heated seat effort, as Robert Ballard of GM is credited with the first patent. He applied for his patent in 1951 and was issued #2,698,893 in 1955. See pictures and detailed text of his patent.

1966 Cadillac Deville convertible

1966 Cadillac DeVille convertible, Source | That Hartford Guy, Flickr

In 1966, the Cadillac DeVille came with the option of heated seats, along with two other luxury innovations: headrests and an AM/FM radio. This option more closely resembled heating pads for the seats, rather than today’s more sophisticated options, but least they were warm.

Who gets credit for the first “real” heated seats? Saab, although their initial goal was to minimize backaches, which would lead to more pleasurable traveling and make for safer driving, according to Saab. The original press release reassured car owners that the heating system was not affected by dampness or water, causing Jalopnik to have this bit of fun: “I like the ‘not affected by dampness’ part in there, because that’s automaker code for ‘Go ahead and wet your pants! You won’t die! Enjoy!'”

Heated car seats: the drawbacks

In a 2011 article in The Legal Examiner, it was stated that approximately 30% of cars on the road today come with heated seats. Edmunds.com states it in a different way: that nearly 300 car models come with seat warmers.

There is no doubt that they provide comfort in the cold months. However, although manufacturers typically list that these heaters max out between 86 and 113 degrees Fahrenheit, temps can sometimes reach 150 degrees. Third degree burns can develop in about ten minutes when temperatures reach 120 degrees. Drivers with diabetes, neuropathy, and/or other paralysis issues may not have the ability to sense danger in time to shut off the heater.

Toasted skin syndrome is an actual condition that, according to the Chicago Tribune in 2013 “results when the backs of your legs, thighs, and buttocks become darkened and discolored after too much time snuggled into a heated seat. Yes, your Fanny Fryer accessory package literally could tan your hide.” This includes the use of heated cloth seats.

The article goes on to say that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Society of Automotive Engineers alike have formed “what can only be called crack teams to get to the bottom of it all and forge safety standards.”

It’s all too easy to joke about seat warmer challenges but results can be quite serious. The integrity of the burned skin, The Legal Examiner article states, could be compromised permanently. Numerous people have already received significant burns from car seat heaters.

Bottom line? (Last joke, promise.) Heated seats can do wonders to warm cold posteriors, so long as drivers are aware of the risks and use them according to manufacturer recommendations.

Does your vehicle have seat warmers? Do you use them? Share your experience in the comments section.