We have a lot to be thankful for these days, especially in terms of advanced car technologies. Every year, it seems like something new and shiny is introduced and then built upon, perfected, and then becomes a “must-have” feature. There are truly some amazing automotive technologies that we often take for granted—many of which might not have been invented at all if it weren’t for inventions leading up to them or the necessity of the feature.
A few of these technologies have been around for over 50 years—we’re talking the modern safety features that we forget exist these days (seat belts, airbags, keys…things that have become part of our everyday lives). These old-fashioned features paved the way for bigger and better things, like keyless fobs, airbags in different places on the car (to protect more than your face or the damage you might inflict on yourself from a regular airbag!), and more.
While fully autonomous driving might be years away, semi-autonomous driving is here in full force, even if you might not even realize it. But take one look at your new car’s features—integrated Wi-Fi and GPS, heated seats, safety features like lane keep assist and automatic self-parking—and you’ll see what we mean. There are cars on the road right now that can effectively drive themselves, we just haven’t really given them the go-ahead yet (though many companies like Uber and Tesla are well on their way to full automation, so don’t freak out when you see a driverless car on the road in the near future).
Here are 20 car technologies that almost never happened but that we should be thankful for.
20 Adjustable Seat Belts
Seat belts were a novel invention in 1949 when car manufacturer Nash first offered them as options, followed by Ford in 1955. According to the NHTS, they save more than 15,000 lives each year. But it was Nils Bohlin who invented the “modern” three-point seat belt, introducing the lap-and-shoulder adjustable belt in 1959 with Volvo. These are now standard safety equipment in most vehicles, designed to keep you in your vehicle and to reduce the risk that you’ll collide with the steering wheel, dashboard, or windshield. Adjustable upper belts also help to accommodate passengers of any size and the pre-tensioners retract to remove excess slack, almost instantly, in a crash.
19 Side And Head Airbags
The first “sensor and safety system” was invented in 1968, which was an electromechanical automotive airbag system, though rudimentary patents for airbags go back as early as 1951, first patented by Walter Linderer and John Hendrik. If it wasn’t for these inventors, we would be seeing a lot more deadly crashes every year, with airbags saving more than 1,600 lives every year in the US alone. But front airbags can also have adverse effects, which is why head injury protection in the form of side and head airbags have been invented, to deploy during side impacts and rollovers, and to protect occupants from injuries caused when their head strikes the upper interior of the vehicle.
18 Antilock Brake System
ABS, the Antilock Brake System, was invented by Gabriel Voisin in 1929, which means they predate seatbelts, airbags, and other safety measures. The rudimentary system was first used for threshold braking on airplanes. ABS prevents a vehicle’s wheels from locking during “panic” braking, which helps a driver maintain greater steering control. This is a key factor in avoiding collisions. All passenger cars with ABS have four-wheel ABS, meaning each wheel is monitored by the system, which also cuts down on a driver losing control when driving at excess speeds or when using extreme steering maneuvers. You can still lose control with ABS, but the system has made driving significantly safer, thanks to Mr. Voisin.
17 Traction Control
Traction control is a relatively new system that was first introduced in 1987, although some powerful rear-wheel drive vehicles as far back as the early 70s were equipped with an early version. Traction control helps improve vehicle stability by controlling the amount the drive wheels can slip when applied with excess power. The system automatically adjusts the engine power output and applies braking force to selected wheels during acceleration. Most vehicles with traction control also have four-wheel ABS. Traction control saves between 450 and 700 lives a year and the number of passenger vehicles equipped with traction control systems has increased significantly in recent years.
16 Electronic Stability Control
An even more recent invention than traction control is ESC (Electronic Stability Control) or Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), which was first introduced in 1995 by Toyota. The ESC and VSC systems are intended to assist drivers in maintaining control of their vehicles during extreme steering maneuvers—even more than traction control. ESC senses when a vehicle is starting to spin out (oversteer) or plow out (understeer) and it automatically applies the brake to a single wheel. This helps reduce the risk of crashes in which vehicles veer off the road and strike curbs, shoulders, guard rails, and other objects that typically result in rollovers. And to think we might have never had it if it weren’t for Toyota (and Mercedes)!
15 Heated And Ventilated Seats
Taking a break from safety systems and moving into luxury systems that we should be thankful for, we have heated and ventilated seats. Cadillac first made the feature available on the Fleetwood luxury car in 1966, before the Saab 99 also came equipped with it in 1972. There are few things nicer, especially during a freezing chill or snowstorm, than getting in your car and feeling the warm embrace of heated leather—and that's not to mention a cooled seat during a scorching summer. The option was once quite rare in the 70s, with warmth being distributed via carbon-cloth heating pads. But now we thankfully have heated and cooled seats in almost every modern vehicle.
14 Adaptive Cruise Control
Adaptive cruise control is something that can be dangerous if used improperly (like if you fall asleep behind the wheel) but for the most part, it’s another great luxury feature. The ACC system was invented by William Chundrlik and Pamela Labuhn in 1990 and first patented by General Motors in 1991. The system uses a radar-camera system to track the vehicles ahead of a driver and adjust speeds accordingly during cruise control. ACC will slow down or speed up depending on the flow of traffic, while allowing the driver to set off on their own with a quick touch of a button (or the gas pedal or brake). We’ll be seeing a whole lot more of this semi-autonomous feature once autonomous cars take over the roads!
13 Backup Cameras And Parking Sensors
This might seem like a very modern invention but backup cameras have actually been around in cars since 1956, with the introduction of the Buick Centurion concept car. The vehicle had a rear-mounted television camera that sent images to a TV screen in the dashboard in place of the rear-view mirror. Once upon a time, you actually had to turn your head to see behind you (which is probably still a good idea), though as of 2018, rearview cameras are required in all vehicles under 10,000 pounds. The high-resolution images and parking sensors are obvious benefits, with some cars even coming equipped with full 360-degree cameras, to give you greater visibility. This invention saves tons of lives and bumpers from trashcans every year.
12 Automatic Liftgates
Manual liftgates have always been something of a hassle—especially if you’re holding things in your hands—but that is no longer the case. The automatic liftgate, or hands-free liftgate, was first introduced in the 2013 Ford Escape crossover. And though the “foot-activated” system didn’t always work as intended, and probably resulted in more than a few dents in cars from being kicked by commuters, it did blaze the trail for one of the most convenient and smart technologies out there. Modern liftgates enable you to simply walk up to your car with the key fob in range, and the car will sense it and automatically open the back door, trunk, or gate for you.
11 Keyless Entry And Push-Button Start
Speaking of key fobs, another great invention that is making old-fashioned keys obsolete is the keyless entry and push-button start. Soon, old keys will be seen as clumsy and unnecessary. Most new cars have an electronic key fob as opposed to a standard key, which allows drivers to lock, unlock, and start their vehicle from afar. The push-button start inside is another feature that’s available only with keyless fobs—and keyless ignition is one of the biggest advancements in vehicle starting technology since, well, the key. Keyless entry and push-button starts also increase the perceived value of a vehicle, though most lower-end models come equipped with them nowadays, too.
10 GPS Navigation And Wi-Fi
Where would we be without Wi-Fi and GPS navigation in our cars? Probably somewhere in the ocean, asking Siri why we made a wrong turn, or stopping at a gas station for directions and looking at an old-timey map. (Does anyone remember printing out MapQuest directions?) GPS units first started showing up in cars in the 1990s and at first, they were terribly slow and inaccurate—but modern navigation technology has made them fast, smart, and increasingly adaptive. Now, we also have head-up displays, holographic windshield protection, Cloud connectivity, and even fake, virtual windscreens! Most cars since 2016 have also come equipped with built-in Wi-Fi hotspots in their car, so your TVs, infotainment systems, and texts will all work flawlessly.
9 Smartphone Integration
Here’s another novel car feature that we have technology to thank—and we wouldn’t have smartphone integration in our vehicles without smartphones themselves! The marriage between cell phones and cars used to be limited to USB ports, cigarette lighter chargers, and Bluetooth connectivity for calling and music. But the options today allow us to basically see everything on our car screen that we could see on our phone. We can read texts, take calls, play music, listen to podcasts, talk to Alexa, and more. And all of this is hands-free technology, making it safer than ever to apply all these awesome functions.
8 Automatic Emergency Braking
Automatic emergency braking (AEB) is a great feature not because it’s “cool” like GPS, smartphone integration, or Wi-Fi but because it’s another feature that saves lives. It also is pretty cool when you discover how it works: AEB uses similar sensors that are found in adaptive cruise control systems, except these ones stop a vehicle autonomously when danger prevents itself. So while ACC speeds you up or slows you down automatically, AEB stops you completely, often with better reflexes than a driver might have. So, if a pedestrian suddenly jumps in front of you or a car comes to a dead stop ahead of you, you have AEB to thank. If you’re even just a little bit distracted, AEB can save your life.
7 Active Exhaust Valves
When you think of car technology that almost didn’t happen or that we can be thankful for, active exhaust valves are probably not the first thing you think of. But this techie invention is ominously awesome because it allows you to cut out the noise and sonic levels both inside and outside your car. With the press of a button inside the cabin, cars with this feature can open or close special butterfly valves inside the exhaust that either ramp up or quell the roar of the powerplant on the other side. For powerful cars like the V8 Jaguar F-Type R, which can easily set off alarms with its engine sound, this is especially useful. Just hit the switch and bring your car’s noise level down to the level of a real jaguar…
6 Driving Modes
Cars have certainly gotten better and more advanced in recent years, thanks to technology, and one of those advancements is the introduction of multiple driving modes. Modern vehicles can stiffen their suspension, adjust their steering ratios, and even embolden their engine notes depending on what drive mode they’re in. And to change modes, it’s no more difficult than pressing a button. Some of the modes available to cars are as follows: normal, eco, sport, comfort, sport plus, individual, track—and some come with even cooler names, like Strada, Sport, and Corsa for the Lamborghini Aventador. These modes allow cars to offer different flavors of performance or luxury, at any time.
5 Voice Recognition
Voice recognition has been around for a while and though it’s not the most advanced feature on cars these days, when it’s used properly, it can be one of the most convenient (and safest). This technology allows you to initiate calls, get directions, read and write texts, play songs, and even search for local places of interest. And this is all hands-free (think smartphone integration), which means you aren’t looking at your phone, and you don’t have to become distracted from looking at the road because you want to play Adele instead of Cardi B. A good voice control system can quickly become your favorite new feature if you use it enough.
4 Automatic Parking
Okay, now we’re just getting lazy! Not really, because some people seriously can’t park, and this feature was specially invented for them (that’s not true—just a biased opinion). Automatic parking is another autonomous feature that answers the question of “Why do something when your car can do it for you?” It’s a technology that started showing up in the US in the early 2000s, with sonar sensors and rearview cameras working together to park the car by itself. Many cars can even parallel park basically by themselves—and sometimes, better than people. The driver only has to use the brake to stop once they’re signaled to do so. This year Tesla unveiled the “Summon” feature, allowing Model S and Model X drivers to park their vehicles remotely with their key fob! Skynet is upon us!
3 Lane Keep Assist
This is a very convenient and safety-oriented feature that has been in cars since 2003 and it’s only been getting better and more responsive as times goes by. Lane keep assist addresses a simple problem: keeping a car centered in its lane. Drivers can usually do this by themselves but people are also notorious for getting distracted and that leads to crashes. Cars don’t get distracted. Lane keep assist systems can even use the brakes or steering to keep a car from crossing the line and avoiding a collision. And any technology that helps keep the roads safer is a good technology to have around.
2 Lightweight Materials
“Lightweight materials” is a pretty broad concept and here’s what we’re talking about: whether it’s carbon fiber, aluminum, high-strength steel, or something else, carmakers are putting more lightweight materials in all the parts of their cars. And many of these lightweight materials are just as strong, if more so, as the heavy materials they’re designed to replicate. Reducing weight improves everything about a car—from fuel economy to acceleration to handling—and it’s also necessary to meet stricter emissions standards and to compensate for the growing array of tech features. As Lotus founder Colin Chapman once said, “Simplify—then add lightness."
1 Electric Fast Charging
This final feature that would have never happened if it weren’t for electric cars in the first place obviously doesn’t apply to everyone—but in the future it might. As it looks like electronic cars and low-emissions vehicles are the way of the future, faster electric charging is a welcome sight. While it used to take hours to charge electric vehicles, which would seriously put a damper on the track record you’re trying to make in your cross-country excursion, nowadays some DC fast-charging stations can have your battery pack back up to 80% in as little as 30 minutes. We’re thankful for the progress, and it will probably only get better from here.
Sources: Digital Trends, Reader's Digest, and NHTSA.