In-depth: From terrifying brakes to laser beams: how far car tech has come

Then and now: the rise of car tech

If you can remember being in a car in the 1970s, you’ll probably recall it was a clunky, uncomfortable set of wheels, loosely bolted together to help you get from one spot to another – and that’s it.

Then and now: the rise of car tech

If you can remember being in a car in the 1970s, you’ll probably recall it was a clunky, uncomfortable set of wheels, loosely bolted together to help you get from one spot to another – and that’s it. It was also the final decade before the ‘techification’ of cars really took off.

Up until then, cars had been pretty much pure analogue devices, with one bit telling another to make fire to force the whole thing to go. Then the gadgetry began in the 1980s as electronic control units became commonplace, albeit largely restricted to engine ignition management.

In the 90s, cars with computer-controlled and networked components that spoke to each other internally began to appear. But all of that is as nothing compared to the veritable explosion of digital automotive wizardry in the last decade or so.

Today’s cars are cloud-connected, semi-autonomous road-going robots packed with touchscreens, sensors and laser beam headlights that can phone home, park themselves and even auto-tweet as you drive along.

Don’t believe us that things have changed that much? OK – let’s compare…

1. Getting there
Then – Maps

Bits of paper? How very quaint. This is one area that’s changed so fast, it’s easy to forget how recently pieces of paper with indecipherable pictures and lines ruled the road. Reading a map as you drove along solo was hard enough, but any kind of re-routing required a stop.

There was also printed Mapquest and directions just 15 years ago, too.

As for knowing whether you’re approaching gridlock, well… good luck with that, although we suppose at least traffic jams weren’t quite the ubiquitous bane then that they are now.

Now – Navigation with real-time traffic

Odds are you don’t have a single paper map in your car. Why would you when it probably has integrated navigation AND you’ve also got your smartphone as back up?

The latest cars from many brands, including Audi, BMW and Jaguar, also sport real-time traffic data and can re-route you on the fly.

Even cleverer, some cars support Send to Car, which means you can fire over new destinations from your phone or computer remotely to your car.

Finding your way has never been so simple.

2. Are you entertained?
Then – MW radio and 8-track cassette

Actually, let’s be realistic. In the 1970s it would have been just the crackly medium wave radio for most cars, where an 8-track cassette player was the stuff of high-end luxury cars. You also probably just had a single, centrally mounted speaker and the sort of sound quality that would make spoiled modern ears bleed.

It was just about OK for listening to the news or test match special, but bloody awful for anything else.

Now – Multi-speaker surround sound and streaming music

One of the unsung marvels of the modern motoring world is the optional Meridian sound system in the Range Rover Evoque. It’s capable of both stupendous volume levels and staggering detail.

Of course, when it comes to source material in many current cars, the internet is your oyster. Even basic cars these days support Bluetooth streaming, which gives you access to any MP3s on your phone or streaming apps like Spotify.

Likewise, access to internet radio gives you almost infinite access to audio on the move – and increasingly courtesy of integrated 4G connections and thus without the need for a phone.

3. Get connected
Then – Roadside phonebox

Legend has it that as recently as the 1960s the UK’s Prime Minister relied on the nation’s phoneboxes to respond in the event of a nuclear attack.

Yes, really. Apparently radios were viewed as too expensive.

Whatever, connectivity for the average motorist used to mean finding a phonebox or just shouting into the wind – we were decades away even from those clunky carphones that were a thing fleetingly until someone realised that they were a teensy bit dangerous.

Now – Mobile broadband and cloud connectivity

Built-in 4G? In-car Wi-Fi? Cloud connectivity? It’s all in the mix. Obvious benefits include things like traffic data and in-car Google searches.

Even better, many cars can now also automatically contact the emergency services and transmit your location in the event of an accident or phone home when there’s a technical fault.

Some manufacturers, including BMW and Toyota, allow you to control features, including door locks and climate control, remotely with a smartphone app.

And Ford’s even partnered with Amazon to let those with an Echo device in the house just shout to turn their car on – or remotely tell your abode to get warm when you’re on your way home, later this year.

4. Staying alive
Then – The nut behind the wheel

Drum brakes, lap belts and the nut behind the wheel – that’s all that used to stand between you and a sticky end back in the 1970s. Indeed, jump behind the wheel of a 70s car and the awful braking performance is probably the thing that stands out most.

In the event of an accident, however, it’ll be poor structural integrity and the structure collapsing that will focus your attention. In fact, roughly three times as many people died each year in UK roads in the 1970s as today, despite dramatically higher traffic levels.

Now – Crumple zones and driver assists

Thanks to anti-lock braking tech and just much more powerful discs braking systems, braking distances achieved by modern cars are dramatically shorter than those sluggish 70s boxes. And if you do crash, crumple zones and airbags make serious injury far less likely.

But prevention is better than cure, and the really clever thing about today’s cars is how good they are at avoiding accidents. Stability control systems keep cars pointing the right way, even in bad conditions, and radar and laser-powered sensor systems can automatically slam on the brakes before the driver is even aware of the hazard ahead.

Cars like the Hyundai Elantra, Mazda CX-9, Mercedes S550, Toyota Camry and many others can even scan the road to prevent you from leaving the lane markers or actively steer the car.

5. Lighting up
Then – Feeble bulbs

Ever driven an old car at night? Then you’ll realise just how awful headlights used to be. A pair of yellowing, feeble bulbs used to be about the best you could hope for unless you fancied a gantry of rally-style lamps hanging off your front bumper.

In fact, the headlights in most cars from even 10 years ago are a world away from the staggering power, clarity and intelligence of the latest technology.

Now – Frickin’ laser beams

Yes, really. Both Audi and BMW now offer laser headlights with incredible range and power. Many others, from Lexus and Mercedes to more mainstream brands like Ford and VW, offer powerful xenon and LED lighting. It’s not just about power, either.

Audi’s Matrix LED headlights are super clever and capable of ‘masking’ their output to prevent dazzling other cars, highlighting hazards in the road ahead and ‘steering’ around corners. Some Audis can even use navigation data to illuminate corners and junctions without the driver turning the wheel.

6. Motive power
Then – Burning dino juice

Setting fire to stuff that comes out of the ground to make a car move will one day seem like a very silly thing to do. But even now, it’s still the dominant technology but back in the 1970s, petrol and diesel engines were the only options.

Even worse, back then smog-reducing technologies like catalytic converters and urea injection for diesel engines weren’t even commonplace, though it’s also true the dirty diesels were much less common in passenger cars.

Now – Hydrogen fuel cells and EVs

OK, there’s just two proper hydrogen car on sale in the UK, the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai ix35 (Tucson for the US), and who knows if hydrogen power is indeed the future of motoring. But it’s the figurehead of a wide range newly-powered vehicles out there now, hybrid and pure-electric cars in all shapes and sizes.

Electric vehicles (EV) with range extender capabilities combine a fairly big battery with a small range-extending combustion engine, like the BMW i3, or the plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) Opel Ampera, look like the best compromises for now.

But if you can afford it, Tesla has just tweaked its Model S for maximum range, and it will now do over 300 miles on a single charge. There’s also the Nissan Leaf for those with a lower budget.

7. Pure performance
Then – 100hp was pretty hot

Back in the 1970s, you were lucky if your sports car had 100hp. If you bought a standard MGB, it didn’t even have that much. Anything capable of hitting 60mph in under 10 seconds or cracking 100mph was considered quick.

Meanwhile, a 70s supercar like the Ferrari Daytona cranked out a claimed 350hp (probably a lot less, in reality) and would very likely be blown away by a basic Porsche Boxster today – thanks to new technological advances.

Now – 400hp hot hatchbacks

If there’s any class of car that captures the incredible gains in performance, it’s probably the hot hatchback.

It’s actually hard to get one’s head around the fact that Mercedes now sells the A45 AMG, a hatchback with 380hp and significantly more performance than a 70s supercar.

That’s what technology does for you – it takes a tiny 2.0-litre engine, adds a turbo, computer-controlled engine management and some traction-control algorithms to create a genuine supercar killer.

Meanwhile, supercars themselves have morphed into 1,500hp, 267mph hypercars like the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport. For the future, the all-electric Tesla Model S points the way.

That’s a conventional four-door car capable of hitting 60mph in 2.8 seconds. ‘Ludicrous Mode’ indeed.

8. Driving duties
Then – Don’t spare the horses, Jeeves

Heavy steering, double-clutching, tweaking the choke – that was driving for most motorists, even in the 1970s. The work rate was high, progress relatively slow.

OK, some cars had automatic gearboxes and power assisted steering, but it was still very much the wetware between your ears that was doing all the driving.

Now – Autonomous cars are almost here

Make no mistake: fully autonomous cars are coming and they are coming sooner than you think. For proof, observe the fact that some of us are already ‘driving’ semi-autonomous cars.

The autopilot feature in the Tesla Model S, for instance, sports radar, cameras, ultrasonic sensors and GPS that enable fully autononous driving in certain situations, (although the feature isn’t enabled in all markets).

Self-driving features aren’t the preserve of premium cars, either. Mainstream models like the Ford Focus can be had with self-parking and radar-controlled cruise capabilities, and it’s only going to get more and more robot-controlled until we’re all sitting in our own private chauffeur-driven vehicles.

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