There are plenty of things that definitely aren’t improving with time.
Reality TV, the Brynglas Tunnels and those annoying Meerkat adverts spring to mind — and so many more examples.
But one thing that definitely has got better over time is the humble car. It’s not so long ago that the average family car was an uncomfortable, unreliable deathtrap. A typical 1980s saloon had few creature comforts, produced more emissions than a burning chemical plant and was slower than continental drift.
OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But there’s no doubt that in a few short years, cars have been transformed. And maybe it’s because of the miserable winter driving conditions, but recently we’ve been feeling particularly grateful for the improvements to cars over the last 20-25 years. With that in mind, here are our top five:
Airbags are, quite simply, genius. Being hit by a big bag of nitrogen is always a shock, sometimes painful and can cause injuries. But it’s so much better than hitting unyielding plastics and metal. How much better? Figures are hard to come by for the UK, but in the USA, a 2009 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency reported that airbags had saved 28,244 lives. That’s staggering.
Airbags started appearing in luxury cars in the late 1980s and gradually found their way into the rest of the market. In recent years, the number incorporated into each cabin has multiplied — the Audi A6, for example, has six. The Jeep Grand Cherokee has ten. With more stringent European safety regulations, some have predicted that cars may soon sport up to 23. We say bring them on. They’ve revolutionalised car safety.
2. Improved Headlights
If you’re used to driving a modern car and then switch to an older model, the headlights can be a bit of a shock. Switch them on and you get soft mood lighting that illuminates the road for about 6 inches ahead. You might as well just put a candle on the dashboard.
The big change in headlights happened in the early nineties with the introduction of polycarbonate housings, computer-designed to direct the beam accurately, and High Intensity Discharge Lights. The latter produce a whiter, brighter beam than the older halogen lights whilst drawing less power.
LED headlights, around since the 2000s, represent another advance. The tiny size of the diodes used allows more inventive configurations for designers. More to the point, they offer drivers a much smarter headlight, because individual diodes can be turned on or off according to the precise conditions.
Driving without adequate light is stressful and dangerous. Praise be for great modern headlights.
3. Sat Nav
OK, now that everyone and his dog has a smartphone, you could make a case that in-car Sat Nav (GPS if you prefer) is becoming redundant. But we’d still put it in our list of the greatest recent advances in driver convenience. Yes, we know Sat Nav has its unlovable quirks: our favourite is being directed to the middle of nowhere and then told you have reached your destination. But honestly, when you’re trying to cope with city traffic, isn’t Sat Nav such an advance over road atlases and bits of paper with copied-out directions?
And as an added bonus, blokes bragging about how they navigated from Tal-y-Bont to Timbuktu using only the sun are now almost extinct.
4. Lighter materials
There is a price to pay for vastly increased comfort and safety in modern cars: added weight. Cars are getting bigger and bloatier by the day. Thankfully, at least some of that has being offset by the use of lighter materials. Manufacturers are increasingly using advanced high-strength steel (AHSS), alloys of magnesium and titanium, and carbon fibre composites. In the right context, each of these can contribute significant weight-saving, without compromising on safety.
Lightweight materials have already made our cars far more nimble and agile than would otherwise be possible. What’s more, these materials are about to become even more crucial as the world starts switching to electric vehicles. Batteries are really heavy and any manufacturer that wants their long-range electric car to weigh less than a battleship’s anchor will need to use lightweight materials. BMW are one of the companies that have been showing the way: through some extremely clever choices of material, their electric I3 weighs about 20% less than a Nissan Leaf.
5. Sensors and diagnostics
We saved the best one until last. The development of sensors and diagnostic systems has allowed us to drive faster, safer, more efficient and more reliable cars. To explain this, we can’t do better than this terrific summary from Joe Wiesenfelder:
“Thanks to countless sensors, all cars know how fast each wheel is turning, and some sample how compressed their shock absorbers are at any given microsecond. They may know if they’re climbing or descending a hill, whether it’s raining or not, what type of road surface they’re on, if the car is spinning or sliding laterally — plus a whole lot about what’s around the vehicle thanks to some mix of cameras, radar, lidar and sonar.
Under computer control, today’s engines and transmissions work much better together. The benefit is more than just efficiency, emissions control and smoother shifting under all conditions — it’s longevity. Electronic nannies save both driver and cars from themselves. Spirited driving in a 2018 model certainly produces more friction and wear than does docile driving, but it’s nothing like the beating a 20-year-old car’s drivetrain would endure under wide-open throttle. New cars are harder to break.
Replacement and service intervals for everything from spark plugs to automatic transmissions are now longer, extending in some models almost as far as the average life expectancy of vehicles, which now nears 12 years, according to IHS Markit. We don’t know about 1998, but in 2002 when IHS began its tracking, the average age was 9.6 years.”
The OBDII system was a particular breakthrough, as it permitted technicians a speedy and precise method of finding the cause of a problem. Before advanced diagnostics, tracking down faults often involved a long-winded Cluedo-like process, in which the technician used his skill and judgement to eliminate various suspects. By comparison, looking up a fault code lacks a bit of mystery — but it’s so much quicker.
Well, that’s our top five. There’s plenty of other improvements that we could have picked, like Electronic Stability Control or Bluetooth. What would make your list?
The Welsh VW Specialist blog covers a wide range of automotive topics, from the contentious to the light-hearted. We are an independent garage specialising (as the name suggests!) in all the VW group marques, including Audi, Volkswagen, Skoda and SEAT. Welsh VW Specialists provide services, repairs and MOTs, delivering a main dealer level of care at affordable prices. To book your vehicle in, or for any enquiries, get in touch.
Thanks to cars.com for the use of their quote.