Top 10 Innovations

The automobile has gone through many innovations, ranging from radios to fuel injection. But what are the top 10 innovations in recent times? Going back 30-ish years, here's what we've come up with:

1. Antilock brakes

Time frame: While there were some electronic braking systems as far back as the 1960s, Mercedes-Benz was reportedly the first to install ABS on production cars, in '78.
The innovation: They help maintain control while stopping, as well as throw the door open to stability control and roll mitigation technologies.
What we did before: Purists will say "stopped in less distance," but "plowed into objects when the steering locked up" is more accurate.
Which cars have them: Most models offer ABS. Check in the Research section to see if the vehicle you're interested in does.

2. Airbag advancements
Side curtain airbags in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Side curtain airbags in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Time frame: The first cars with airbags debuted in the early '70s; Chrysler was the first to make them standard in cars, in 1988.
The innovation: Airbags have graduated from things that simply blast out of the dashboard to more advanced devices that protect you in a rollover, cushion your knee and adjust for smaller drivers. They can also determine the severity of the impact, your seat position and whether you're wearing a seat belt.
What we did before: Relied on seat belts, if we wore them, to protect us.
Which cars have them: All cars must have front airbags. Many also have head and side airbags. Check with your dealer for availability.

3. Key fobs
Chevrolet Malibu key fob.

Chevrolet Malibu key fob.

Time frame: Chevy's '93 Corvette featured General Motors' first Passive Keyless Entry system.
The innovation: Fobs now unlock doors, set off the horn and lights if you lose the car in the MegaMart parking lot and, in some cases, mean you don't have to use a key at all. The latest systems can be programmed to remember how you like your seat and mirror and adjust them accordingly. We should be driving jet cars by now. Failing that, not having to fumble with keys, seats and mirrors will have to do.
What we did before: Expended needless mental energy remembering where we parked and exhausted ourselves by unlocking doors manually.
Which cars have them: Most do. Check in the Research section to see if the vehicle you're interested in is included.

4. Fold-flat rear seats
Fold-flat seats in the Honda Odyssey.

Fold-flat seats in the Honda Odyssey.

Time frame: The first folding rear seats debuted in the '60s, but Honda's fold-away seats in the late-90s Odyssey, later adopted by several automakers, took the concept to a new level.
The innovation: Seats that tuck out of the way are so much easier to deal with than those that have to be removed.
What we did before: Searched for a place in the garage to stow our van's seats then risked a hernia by removing the heavy, awkward things.
Which cars have them: Most sedans have fold-down rear seats; most of the best-selling minivans have the fold-flat third row.

5. Electronic stability systems

Time frame: BMW and Mercedes-Benz introduced them in '95 models.
The innovation: A computerized system that applies the car's brakes or cuts the throttle, or a little of both, to keep the car going where you want it to.
What we did before: Sometimes drove beyond our, or our car's, capabilities.
Which cars have them: Many models offer these systems. Check with your dealer.

6. DVD players
Saturn Vue DVD screen.

Saturn Vue DVD screen.

Time frame: Honda and Saturn first offered them as options in 2002 models.
The innovation: They shrunk the DVD player and TV you had in the family room and stuck it in a vehicle. What's so innovative about that? If you have to ask, you must not have kids.
What we did before: Hated life.
Which cars have them: Many minivans, wagons and SUVs have them as an option; some cars do as well.

7. Heated and cooled seats

Time frame: Heated seats have been around for a while, but cooled seats debuted in the mid-90s.
The innovation: Electric coils warm the seat, air circulates to cool it.
What we did before: Froze our butts off, or walked around with sweaty, slimy shirts plastered to our backs.
Which cars have them: Many cars offer heated seats. Cars with cooled seats include the Audi A8; BMW 760, 750 and M5; Bentley Continental Flying Spur; Buick Lucerne; Cadillac DTS, Escalade, STS, XLR and DTS; Ford Expedition and GT; Infiniti M35 and M45; Lexus ES, GS, IS and LS; Lincoln LS, Navigator and MKZ; Maserati Quattroporte; Maybach 57 and 62; Mercedes-Benz S, SL, CL, CLK, CLS, E and SLR; Mercury Monterey; Saab 9-5; Toyota Avalon; and VW Phaeton.

8. Tilt/telescoping steering wheels and adjustable pedals

Time frame: Tilt steering wheels have been around for a long time, but telescoping steering wheels and adjustable pedals only became common in the last 10 years.
The innovation: You need to sit at least 10 inches from airbags to avoid injury when they deploy, but shorter folks sometimes can't easily reach the car's controls if they do that.
What we did before: Sat too close to the airbag, hurt our backs with bad posture and generally were uncomfortable, and possibly unsafe, behind the wheel.
Which cars have them: Check the Research section for vehicles that have this setup.

9. Navigation systems
Lincoln navigation screen.

Lincoln navigation screen.

Time frame: There are debates over who was first, but Honda claims the first nav system, in the 1990 Acura Legend.
The innovation: Going beyond paper maps, these systems can act as a co-pilot, telling you where to go and recalibrating themselves if you miss a turn. Besides, paper is, like, so 20th century.
What we did before: Refused to ask for directions.
Which cars have them: Many offer them as an option. Ask your dealer.

10. Hybrid drivetrains

Time frame: While electric cars go back to the early days of the automobile, Honda's Insight was the first mass-produced hybrid sold in the U.S., in the 2000 model year.
The innovation: Hybrid drivetrains combine gas engines with electric motors for power. While some systems are tuned to deliver more performance, the real news is in going farther on a gallon of gas ... and being able to drive a partially electric car without plugging it in.
What we did before: Plugged in our electric cars, or bought smaller, lighter vehicles to save gas.
Which cars have them: Available hybrid cars.

Close, but no cigar
  • Second-row seats that slide, making it easier to get in and out
  • Rearview cameras
  • Run-flat tires
  • Stereo advances, including satellite radio and MP3 compatibility
  • Advanced diesel engines
Posted on 8/1/06