Futuristic automobile technologies that have become common in the last 35 years

It’s hard to imagine, but 35 years ago was 1986. It was the year when streets were bathed in yellow, and Filipinos got their freedom back after ousting a dictator. It was also around the same time when the Philippine automotive industry started rebuilding. From just a handful of brands then, today, this country of 7,107 islands is home to more than 40.

This story though isn’t about sales numbers and market share—that’s something best told another day. Instead, this is about the car itself. It’s amazing how this four-wheeled form of transportation managed to transform itself in such a short span of time. And though flying cars still remain a pipedream, several technologies often regarded of as science fiction are in fact, commonplace in today’s cars.

Here are 15 technologies that managed to make it straight from science fiction to reality in just 35 years:

 Power-dense engines

In 1986, a vast majority of cars relied on the carburetor, a mechanical device that mixed air and fuel in an appropriate ratio for combustion. Today, that technology has been relegated to the realm of classics as carmakers all moved on to computer-controlled EFI or Electronic Fuel Injection in the late 1990s to Direct Injection (DI) and turbocharging today. With that, modern engines are power dense with 1.5-liter engines capable of generating close to 200hp while still being more environment-friendly and fuel-efficient than ever before. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, leaded gasoline was also phased out by before the millennium. Carmakers aren’t stopping there either. Electrification is seen as the next frontier, and they could result in even smaller engines—so small that they can fit one on each axle, or each wheel—that make tremendous amounts of power while emitting no emissions.

The box-type Mitsubishi Lancer, the bestselling car in 1986, has none of the high-tech features found in today’s bestselling car, the Toyota Vios (top right)

 Confident stops

Of course, if cars have much more go, they need to have better brakes to match. Thirty-five years ago, disc brakes were seen as “sporty,” today, they’re pretty much standard even in entry-level cars. Today’s cars brake harder and sooner giving drivers better confidence in challenging conditions. Technologies such as ABS are now commonplace. A trend that most people didn’t see coming though is the popularization of electronic parking brakes or EPBs. Replacing traditional hand or foot brakes, EPBs prevent accidents from unwanted or unexpected rolling—they can even be programmed to engage automatically when the car’s switched off. EPBs also give added conveniences such as automatic brake hold, which holds the brake pedal automatically for the driver. This lessens stress when driving in stop and go traffic.

Death of the manual

If there’s one thing traditional car enthusiasts will miss in today’s cars, it would be the manual gearbox. In 1986, almost all vehicles came with three pedals and a stickshift—be it a compact sedan, an executive sedan, or even a luxury SUV. Today, automatic is the general term used to describe clutchless gearboxes that use torque converters, CVTs, or dual clutches. Whatever the case, thanks to the comfort, convenience, and improved efficiencies of the automatic, almost all cars have two pedals and a shifter that reads “P-R-N-D.” Sure, the manual gearbox is still around, but they’re typically relegated to entry-level models or niche enthusiast cars.

Digitized handling

Advances in computer technology mean cars of today offer a much more digitized driving experience than drivers realize. The first to go was cable-linked throttles (they’re now mostly drive-by-wire). Then, hydraulic power steering (something not even standard in 1986) went out the window, and was replaced by electronic servos that loosened or tightened the steering based on speed. Today, most cars have computers connected to sensors that can regulate the throttle, or even apply brakes with varying force on each wheel to help drivers stay in control. This is basically the role of the stability and traction control systems. Moreover, some cars today go so far as to read the road conditions, and stiffen or soften the ride either using magnetic filaments or air pockets stored in the dampers.

See in the dark

In the span of 35 years, who would have thought that lighting technology would jump this much. In 1986, cars relied on halogen headlights—which is basically a filament-based system similar to an incandescent house bulb. From there, it went to High-Intensity Discharge (HID), better known as xenon headlights (remember those expensive retrofit kits?). Today, modern cars use LED headlamps. LEDs enabled carmakers to implement “intelligent lighting.” Together with a front-facing camera (or in simpler applications, they’re linked to the steering wheel), they can selectively turn on and turn off a number of LEDs effectively offering increased visibility in low lighting conditions, while also making them largely glare-free to other motorists. A handful of cars have gone further, using laser lamps. These use mirrors to direct a laser onto a phosphor that emits light.

Bling wheels

Back then, cars were running wheel sizes as small as 13 inches. High-performance cars of the time ran on 15 inches. By comparison, those are what you’d find in a typical small sedan today. Yet, despite the wheel’s growth spurt, ride and fuel efficiency have improved. As wheel and tire construction improved, carmakers have begun pushing what’s possible in the OE (Original Equipment) wheel. From steel rims to alloy wheels to forged wheels, wheel sizes may have increased, but their weights have remarkably stayed the same. Hand-in-hand, tires saw the move from them being fitted with inner tubes—worn ones are turned into salbabidas to radial tires. Today, you have cars with Kevlar inserts or reinforced sidewalls that enables them to run at length even when flat.

Aluminum/composites in body structure

Once reserved for racing cars and high-end exotics, more and more mainstream cars are starting to adopt advanced construction when it comes to suspension bits and even body panels. Driven by ever-stricter safety standards and the drive to lose weight (it is, after all, the enemy of efficiency), carmakers are starting to use high-strength low-alloy steel (HSLA) more and more in their vehicles. HSLA aside, there’s also the use of aluminum primarily in suspension components, and even the widespread use of carbon fiber or other fancier composites all in the name to reduce weight.

Lusty paint jobs

Who still remembers the need to send a brand-new car to get extra rustproofing during the 80s and 90s? Today, thanks to advancements in paint and paint preparation, cars rarely have to deal with rust on body panels. Plus, thanks to a more flexible and complex assembly line, carmakers are able to come up with special paintwork which were once the specialty of small volume coachbuilders. Now, carmakers don’t just offer a variety of gloss or metallic finishes, but they can even come up with matte or pearlescent finishes, too.

Eyes everywhere

In the late 1980s to the early 2000s, if you wanted to park your car, you had to rely on your senses. Now, while having good spatial sense is still invaluable, cars have a variety of sensors to prevent or mitigate crashes from happening. Sonar parking sensors were once equipped only in large high-end SUVs, but soon made their way even to small entry-level cars. After that, came the cameras—first pointed at the back, and soon, it was all around. If that wasn’t enough, some sensors are smart enough to warn you if there’s an object that you might have missed. Some will even automatically engage the brakes when it detects a collision is imminent.

 Powered this, automatic that

The simplicity of cars in the late 80s can be underscored by the fact that some carmakers proudly made badges or stickers that said, “power steering.” Today, power  steering is pretty much commonplace. The same can be said about power adjustment for the doors, windows, and mirrors as well. And while the power antenna has bitten the dust (they’re now printed in the rear glass) you’d be surprised to know that a lot more cars today are fitted with power seats. You can even go further and include things like a power sunroof, automatic climate control, automatic dimming rear view mirrors, light-sensing headlamps, and rain-sensing wipers. Basically, the modern-day driver can concentrate on doing just one thing: drive. It’s no wonder why some young ones are easily distracted by their mobile phones.

Connectivity

This brings up the next piece of technology: in-car connectivity. With vehicles now automating a lot of functions, drivers find themselves with spare brain and muscle power to do some multitasking like making calls or posting a selfie in traffic. That’s why more cars tout advanced smartphone connectivity like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s funny because these features weren’t even considered as “must-haves” five or even four years ago. At the time, a simple Bluetooth connection was all that’s needed. Before that, USBs and even Aux jacks were the only connectivity options. And before that, it was CDs and cassette tapes. Before, you were “sikat” if your car had a CD changer. Today, it’s all about sharing your road trip Spotify playlist.

Semi-autonomous driving

It’s already 2021 and sadly, you still can’t get a car that drives itself. Carmakers are slowly but surely trying to make it happen, but before then, their various learnings have made modern cars semi-autonomous. Have a difficult time parking? Well, there’s an automated system for that. On the highway a lot? Your car can maintain a preset distance and speed for you—heck it can even keep your car in lane too. Today, these are realities, but taken from the perspective of the 80s, where computing power can barely run the first version of Windows, these technologies truly seem like science fiction.

Customizable displays and touchscreens

Thirty-five years ago, every single interface you had with the car was mechanical. The gauges were mechanical (including the trip and odometer), and sometimes even the radio had a mechanical display (sorry, no automatic tuning then). Then single line displays, in single color and multi-color, made it to the audio system. You were the epitome of cool when you had a graphic equalizer back then. From there, customizable displays and touchscreens quickly made their way from laptops to smartphones to car displays. Today, in many cars, you change radio stations or pick tunes by tapping or swiping on a screen—an action once done solely on mobile phones. In a few, you can go as far as changing the entire display to match your mood or preference.

Smart keys

Who would have thought that even the humble car key would make a drastic transformation in just 35 years? From a mechanical system that used a set of pins and tumblers to lock, unlock, or start a car, carmakers soon added audible car alarms as a meant to prevent car theft. If that wasn’t enough, soon they added an immobilizer which is more of a silent sentry. This used RFID technology that lets the key “talk” to the car’s ECU. Today, thanks to several antennas in the car’s bodywork, a smart key doesn’t even need to be taken out of the pocket or purse to lock, unlock, or start a car. From there, carmakers are taking a step further, and want to make your smartphone your car key. It hasn’t happened in the Philippines yet, but it’ll come sooner rather than later.

Self-aware cars

No, this isn’t about Terminators or Skynet. Instead, it’s about modern-day cars using all those sensors to remove the guessing game when it comes to upkeep and maintenance. Some are fairly simple like telling you when you need to check your tire pressures. Some will go so far to tell you when it’s time for an oil change or brake pad replacement. Today, most people dread seeing the “Check Engine” light come on, but this is better than having to guess what each engine sound meant. And while most of the time a specialized tool is needed to decode what’s going on (that’s an OBD Scanner in case you’re wondering), some modern cars can actively display faults on their customizable displays.

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