Latest auto technology is often nothing new

Larry Printz
Tribune News Service

You climb into your new car. After fastening your seat belt and hitting the starter button, you push another button to put into gear. You adjust the automatic climate control using the screen at the center of the instrument panel. The gas-electric hybrid driveline powers you down the road as traction control ensures you have maximum grip, even in the rain. You might even adjust the car’s ride using a control on the center console.

Your car seems to have the latest in modern technology, but there isn’t a single item that’s newer than the 1980s. In fact, some features in modern cars date back 80 years or more.

What’s new is old, although it took the microchip for those old ideas to function flawlessly.

Push-button shifting

Today: You’ll find push buttons on the right side of the instrument cluster on the new Lincoln MKC crossover and MKZ midsize sedan, and on Aston Martins.

Yesterday: The first successful push-button shifter could be found on Chrysler products in 1956.

Push-button starters

Today: Many new cars employ push-button starters used with smartkey fobs. Only lower-priced cars still use traditional ignition switches.

Yesterday: Once the electric starter was introduced in 1912, most cars used starter buttons, either on the instrument panel or on the floor. Key ignitions followed later.

Head-up display

Today: Many German automakers are introducing head-up displays, which projects speed and other information onto the windshield in front of the driver.

Yesterday: General Motors introduced the feature in 1988 on Oldsmobiles, lifting the technology, used in airplanes since World War II, from its Hughes Aircraft division.

Adjustable suspension

Today: Many sports and luxury cars have suspensions that employ electronics to adjust a car’s ride and handling at the touch of a button.

Yesterday: Cadillac introduced the first driver-adjustable suspension in 1933. Ride Regulator had five settings, from “firm” to “free.” The driver adjusted the ride quality using a lever on the left side of the steering wheel.

Cylinder deactivation

Today: Honda and General Motors have engines that deactivate up to half of an engine’s cylinders when the car is traveling under light loads, such as cruising at highway speed.

Yesterday: After the second Arab oil embargo, Cadillac developed the idea of having its V-8 engine shut down two or four of its eight cylinders under light loads. Debuting in 1981, it was better in theory than execution.

Heated seats

Today: Nothing beats them on a cold winter morning, and they are common options on most cars and trucks. Some cars, such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, offer front and rear seat heaters, and even heated steering wheels and armrests.

Yesterday: The first production car to offer a heated front seat was 1966 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. It was turned on and off using a dash-mounted knob.

Computer screens

Today: Most cars use touch screens in the instrument panel to control climate, manage entertainment and convey information.

Yesterday: The first computer screen in a car was on the 1986 Buick Riviera. The Graphic Control Center could also be found on the Cadillac Eldorado and Oldsmobile Toronado. The 3-by-4-inch cathode-ray tube displayed green type on a black background. Automotive journalists griped about it, and eventually GM withdrew it.

Automatic climate control

Today: Only the least expensive cars lack this feature, and many have dual, or even multizone, automatic climate control.

Yesterday: While Packard first offered car air conditioning, Cadillac introduced Comfort Control in 1964. Sensors maintained the desired temperature by running air-conditioning or heating without driver assist.