Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


A stream of auto innovation

The automobile innovation stream has flowed generously for over 100 years.  It has supplied a variety of new vehicle features — many becoming new standards — some surprisingly simple.  Of all the doodads offered over the years, whether simple or complex, consumer acceptance determines whether or not a new feature has staying power.

Whenever I rebuild an old car’s carburetor, I’m reminded why fuel injection has stuck around — it works way better!  Carb adjustments are really compromise settings to handle all conditions.  But with electronic, computer controlled fuel injection, the mixture is ever-changing, based on exhaust feedback. 

Non-power, drum brakes on ‘50s and ‘60s classics don’t inspire confidence either.  The modern disc counterpart is actually mechanically simpler than a drum brake system, but it sure affords superior stopping power.

Disc brake systems may be fairly simple, but they are now coupled with somewhat complex anti-lock technology, which is now the standard for every auto I know of.  Again, features that work well usually have staying power.

Some of the newer technology is so simple, one may wonder, “What took so long?”  The modern cup holder is one such item.  For years, drinks were relegated to positions between the legs, floorboards, or the mock cup holders inside the glove box lid.  Those little dimples only worked when the vehicle was stationary, and at an eighth of an inch deep, they were not really “holders.”

The Chrysler Corporation is generally credited with the radical redesign of the cup holder in 1983 by increasing the depth of the holding holes so they actually held.  By now, variations have reached artful status, and I believe the Chrysler mini-van has about 14 of them.  Again, useful ideas tend to stick — especially with coffee’s monumental comeback.

Another simple invention that has become a staple of auto engineering is the coolant recovery tank introduced in 1968.  This container simply hooks to the overflow hose at the top of a radiator (a hose that for years that led to the street), captures expelled coolant, and then later returns it to the radiator.

While they are a bit more complex than cup holders or catch cans, innovations like power door locks, cruise control, quality sound systems, seat/shoulder belts, and radial tires are now the norm.  These items were once unavailable, were later offered as options, and now are virtually standard.

At the complex end of the innovation spectrum, control of engine, transmission, body, and suspension functions are more and more relegated to computers with each new model year.  Given that, much of the new feature flow will be the result of creative computer programming and software.  Many items, such as active suspension, variable valving and GPS, along with driver assist features like automatic braking and lane departure warnings are now appearing on luxury vehicles — typically, the most popular of those features will make their way down the line to all models eventually. 

Manufacturing automobiles is a troublesome task.  After all, some of the new gizmos don’t catch on — like the push button gear selector on an automatic transmission, for example.  Both Rambler and Chrysler tried that, but it never took hold.  Who knew?  The pushbutton radio went over big, but not the tranny.

So, it must be a difficult task trying to gauge consumer acceptance.  Innovations abound, but picking the right ones to market is tricky.  What’s your favorite?

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at