If you have a copy of the Automotive News 1963 Almanac handy (don't we all), flip to the section titled "Automotive Highlights." Here, you'll find a brief record of historical highlights up to the mid-20th century, such as "1912 — First automatic electric starter," or "1934 — Automatic overdrive for transmissions were used," and "1951 — Power steering introduced [on a commercial level]." Being able to rattle off those accomplishments must have felt pretty good in 1963.
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Innovation and perceptions
Were the Automotive News Almanac still in print today, the highlight reel would be much longer. But the message would remain the same as it was 50 years ago: Every so often, an innovation comes along that completely alters our perceptions and expectations of how a vehicle should behave or come equipped.
These innovations usually start out as expensive but intriguing sidetracks that are approached with apprehension. Then, over time as prices go down and they become more common, broader public acceptance is eventually the end result. Features we take for granted, such as electric starters, overdrive transmissions, and power steering, were once reserved for car buyers willing to pay top dollar for a period Cadillac, Lincoln, or Imperial.
The trickle-down effect
Speaking of Cadillac, Lincoln, and Imperial, the current auto and aftermarket-support industries offer abundant instances of this technology-transfer phenomenon called the "trickle-down effect." An example? When CDs began to usurp cassette tapes as the preferred sound-system media format in the 1980s and 1990s, in-vehicle CD players were rare sights. But people wanted to play their record-store-purchased CDs in their cars.
So gradually, more and more automakers began to equip their vehicles with optional CD players or bulky CD changers. New cars being introduced today are starting the shift away from CDs in favor of USB, Bluetooth, or streaming audio. Additionally, we can't forget the contributions of the aftermarket industry during this changeover stage. They offered it all: head units (often with strobes and wacky light colors), CD changers to install in trunks, and the old cassette-adaptors you'd plug into your portable CD player. More recently, the aftermarket has rushed to bring USB, Bluetooth audio and MP3 player integrations to the used-car market.
Perhaps the greatest examples of tech transfer occurred in a less glamorous category. Everyone knows safety is important, but we're at the point where modern-day safety equipment is frequently taken for granted. Case in point: the three-point (meaning three anchoring spots) seatbelt, which is mandatory for all vehicles on sale today. You can thank Volvo for installing it in the 1959 Amazon during a time when the universal thinking was that existing optional two-point lap belts were "good enough" (they weren't mandatory in the U.S. until 1965).
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the German brand's largest sedan and a globally renowned form of transportation for dignitaries and high-ranking politicians, is credited with paving the way for numerous technological and safety advances that have long since trickled into the mass market. Anti-lock brakes and frontal airbags may have existed in various forms before being introduced on the S-Class, but their application on the Mercedes helped fuel wider demand for and implementation of these now-commonplace features.
The power of safety
Electronic stability control, federally mandated to be present in all new vehicles by 2012 (including the mighty SRT Viper sports car), was developed to help drivers maintain control in the event of a driving emergency. Stability control forged its way onto the marketplace in the 1995 S-Class and now it's an inescapable, life-saving device that has also become mandatory on today's SUVs. Today's obligatory crumple zones were a Mercedes-led venture too, well pre-dating the S-Class. Ford is currently championing inflatable seatbelts. The power of safety is strong.