35 years of automotive innovation

The Agrawal family cars over the years. The Pontiac Catalina was our family’s first car when we immigrated to the United States. The Mini Cooper is my current car. (These are images gleaned from Google search, not my actual cars.)

What will cars look like 30 years from now? That’s a question I’ve been talking to friends about recently.

One way to assess the future is to look back at the past. My memories go back to when my parents drove us 35 years ago.

Safety features: shoulder belts, airbags, antilock brakes, crumple zones, electronic traction control, reinforced door beams, LATCH anchors. A passenger side mirror was an option; these days it’s standard. Third brake light. Xenon headlights. Tire pressure monitoring system. Some cars have wipers for lights. (Relatively rare.) LED brake lights. Back up sensors and back up cameras. High end cars can have night vision, pedestrian protection. Many of these changes are because of regulations, but they started because of new product development. For example, airbags were in some cars before they became mandatory. Backup cameras aren’t required today, but they’re in a lot of vehicles. But in 2018, they will be required.

Convenience features. Power locks/windows, air conditioning have become standard on all but the cheapest cars. Remote to lock/unlock. Reading lights, vanity lights. Rear defogger. Mid-level cars with keyless entry, power mirrors, power seats, auto dimming rear view mirror, heated seats, push button start. Garage door opener. Rain sensor. Automatic climate control, dual-zone climate control. Memory seats/mirrors. Voice recognition. Carplay, Android Auto, High end cars add self-opening glove box (really!), heated steering wheel, seat coolers, a zillion seating controls, massaging seats, electronic air freshener (really!)

Automation. Only 4% of cars sold today in US are stick shift. (vs. 31% 30 years ago.) Auto stick, paddle shifters. Cruise control, intermittent wipers. Power steering, power brakes. High-end cars have adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, lane departure warning systems, automatic lane changing, automatic braking, self parking.

Infotainment/telematics. Tape decks have gone away, CD players replaced them and on Teslas, there isn’t even a CD player. Nav systems available on mid-high end cars. Minivans for a while had DVD players built into roof for kids. Bluetooth. Not widely adopted, but available: satellite radio, OnStar. Some cars can be managed by an app.

Infotainment/telematics. Tape decks have gone away, CD players replaced them and on Teslas, there isn’t even a CD player. Nav systems available on mid-high end cars. Minivans for a while had DVD players built into roof for kids. Bluetooth. Not widely adopted, but available: satellite radio, OnStar. Some cars can be managed by an app.

Repairability. Cars have become more difficult for the weekend mechanic to repair. Some things are still easy, like oil changes and filter changes. But a lot of the car is controlled by complex electronics instead of mechanical parts.

Software and connectivity. Cars are increasingly run by software. This can create problems when cars are poorly designed; recent Jeeps could be remotely controlled because hackers went to the CAN-bus through the infotainment system. Software can be upgraded. Some Fords can be upgraded through the USB port. Teslas update wirelessly and the company can add significant new features. The industry has standardized on the OBD-II connector. That sounds like it’s not important — but it’s provided a pathway for innovation. For example, my car insurance is charged per mile and I can get speed information via a dongle that plugs into the OBD-II port. The dongle also provides diagnostic data that I can read on my insurance app.

Pollution. Our first car ran on leaded gasoline. Now, most cars run on unleaded gasoline. Unless they’re running on electric, which has zero-emissions. On gas-powered engines, CO2 emissions are a fraction of what they were 30 years ago. Fuel economy has nearly doubled from 13.1 MPG to 24.7 MPG. 

Design. New form factors like SUV and minivan. Station wagons rare. Color keyed bumpers. (I miss chrome!) Hood ornaments have disappeared in place of badges on the front of the car. Antenna design has become increasing sophisticated and the antennas have become less visible. Vinyl tops have gone away. (Thankfully!) Cars have become much more aerodynamic.

Etc. More/better diagnostics. Instead of simply dummy lights, many mid+ cars have engine computers. Digital speedometers instead of analog. (Some cars.) Outside temperature sensor. Vinyl to cloth seats. Bench seats in front replaced with bucket seats. Fold down seats with trunk access. Cigarette lighters are less common. Even on my ’95 Nissan Altima, the lighter element was missing. (A 12V power plug was there, but the lighter was an accessory.) With the decline of smoking, ashtrays have become less common. We see USB ports, auxiliary inputs and iPhone connecters.

And, of course, cup holders!

It’s important to note that this is based on the U.S. market. Despite globalization of the auto industry, there is significant variation from market-to-market. Manual transmissions are very common in Europe and Asia; they’re rare in the U.S. Emissions standards are different. There is also right drive vs. left drive.

So what does this tell us about the future? It says cars evolve slowly.

But I expect that the pace of innovation to speed up for a number of reasons:

  • Increasing competition from other car manufactures. The “big three” aren’t as dominant as they used to be. Chrysler is merely a brand. GM has shuttered Oldsmobile, Pontiac. Saturn was created and shuttered in that time frame.
  • Cars are now designed using software, making it easy to test variations before going through the expense of tooling.
  • Standardized parts suppliers. In the old days, car manufacturers had captive parts arms. Now companies like Continental, Alpine and Johnson Controls provide many of the parts. This allows innovation to spread faster. To some extent, car companies are systems integrators.

Of course, the biggest push toward automation is being driven by Google with its focus on automation.

But there are also a lot of factors that slow innovation. Despite the fact that technology can improve quickly, the regulatory environment doesn’t because of the slow pace of legislative change.

The basic process of buying a car has been virtually unchanged. You go into a dealership and haggle with a guy (still mostly guys) who then “talks to his manager” to “see what he can do” to “put you in that car today.”

Behind the scenes, many car dealers are really owned by the same companies despite having localized brands. Heard of Penske Automotive? Probably in the context of auto racing. Penske owns 243 dealerships generating $15B in annual revenue. Single rooftop dealers are much rarer.

With today’s market, the right way to sell cars is direct-to-consumer by manufacturers. But dealers control state legislatures with promises of campaign contributions and local jobs. In some states, you have to go through machinations to buy a Tesla.

Politics plays a role in other ways. In Florida, a candidate used an ad to attack an opponent for supporting self-driving cars. Scaring the shit out of seniors is a time-honored practice. Never mind that self-driving cars would give seniors with vision problems, reduced reaction times and limited mobility a lot more freedom.

Some regulation is done on a state-by-state basis. Legally, a car can’t drive itself across the country.

There is much work to be done. In the road ahead, I’ll look at the effects of automation on the design of cars themselves and the effects on society.