A Brief History of In-Car Tech

Talking to your car is an ages-old practice, but only the latest cars can respond by changing the radio station, adjusting the climate control or adding an appointment to your schedule. Modern vehicles come with a host of technology we take for granted, and it’s easy to forget that less than a century ago, even a stereo was considered a premium upgrade.

Today’s car buyers seek out the best in comforts and safety features. What might have been considered an upgrade a few years ago is now expected to come as standard. To appreciate how far we’ve come, let’s take a look at where some of our favorite features got started.

Row Your Own 

Believe it or not, the automatic transmission was introduced around 100 years ago. Granted, transmissions in those days were much simpler than the eight, nine and even ten-speed options today’s cars offer.

Rather than shell out for a two-speed auto, most drivers chose to shift their own gears using a manual transmission. Die-hards still opt for a stick today, but they’re dying out, with less than one in 20 cars sold using a standard shift.

Park Somewhere Safe 

Did you know that car keys weren’t introduced with the earliest models? In fact, it took Cadillac, the standard of the world, to introduce keys as a feature in 1916. It would be more than 60 years before the first keyless-entry models were introduced.

These days we have smart keys, many of which don’t even include a traditional metal key mechanism. In the future, your car may know how to recognize you biometrically — now there’s a theft deterrent.

Smoke ‘Em If Ya Got ‘Em 

Anyone who has owned a vehicle made before the early 2000s is familiar with the standard-issue in-car ashtray and cigarette lighter. Maybe it’s a sign that society is moving toward healthier habits, but these items are nowhere to be found in modern cars.

Many people seem to prefer the convenience of a USB port or outlet instead.

Crank up the Tunes 

In-car infotainment is possibly the area where we’ve seen the largest advances since the birth of the car. It’s been a steady march of progress as the radio was introduced in the 1930s, and multi-speaker sound systems became standard later. Then, the 8-track and cassette were introduced, and by the 1980s, we even got CD players.

Even the CD will run out of breath at some point, though, and its days appear to be numbered. With fewer people using the technology, it’s expected that by 2021, less than half of cars sold will offer CD player options. Infotainment technology tends to stick around longer in vehicles to support standards that the buying public already owns.

An Automotive Revolution

In many ways, the technology in our cars has come a longer way than the mechanics of the cars themselves, but that’s about to change. Major manufacturers expect to deliver self-driving cars by 2021, which will transform the way we think about and use our cars.

Without the need to provide input at the wheel, “drivers” can focus on other tasks, like working from the car during the morning commute (and you thought sitting in traffic couldn’t get any worse). On the upside, if you don’t make it to work on time, you can always just blame your car.

Kate Haywood is a researcher and writer who works with CJ Pony Parts

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