Transportation – Part 6: Where Automobiles Are Inspiring Technical Innovation

Name technologies that have been instrumental sources of innovation throughout the 20th and 21st century? I’m betting that you’ll immediately think about space, computing, and telecommunications. You probably won’t say the automobile. But the automobile has been and continues to be a technology innovator.

Automobile Technology as Inspired Innovator

The invention of the automobile has introduced innovation in many ways. Here are just some:

1. Mass Production

When Ford Motor Company started out in 1903 it took 3 workers a full day to assemble 3 automobiles. In a previous blog we talked about the innovations Ford brought to mass production. By 1913 Ford was building thousands of vehicles each week using an automated manufacturing process that made it possible to assemble each vehicle in a mere 93 minutes. The mass production technology used standardized parts, a moving belt upon which vehicles came to workers specifically trained to add a single part to the assembly, and readily available parts manufactured in close proximity. By 1927 mass production was churning out 15 million vehicles at Ford every year.

Ford was responding to the demand for the automobile. Keeping up with this demand forced innovation.

2. Motors

Motors and automobiles go hand-in-hand. The internal combustion engine (ICE) is a product of the automobile age. In a recent blog we talked about the history and future of ICE, a technology that has been with us for well over a century.

New motive technologies owe their origins to early 20th century experiments with automobiles. The electric car,  hybrid technology, energy recovery from braking , and experimentation with alternate fuels all owe their development to engineers and scientists seeking answers to questions posed by the automotive industry. Hydrogen fuel cell technology may have been pioneered for space travel but practical commercial potential has been driven by the automobile. Toyota, Japan’s largest car maker and the leader in hybrid systems plans to sell hydrogen-powered vehicles in major markets by 2013.

Battery and super capacitor evolution owes much to the inspirationally driven ideas of automobile engineers seeking new ways of generating motive power.

3. Materials Science

The automotive industry in its search to conserve energy without impeding performance has had a revolutionary impact on engineering materials. In a recent blog we talk about the evolution of metals, plastics, polymers and ceramics, all driven by scientists seeking ways to make automobiles lighter and safer.

4. Industrial Robotics

Manufacturing of automobiles inspired robotics. We have discussed the development of robotics for automotive assembly in a previous blog. Robots are ubiquitous to manufacturing with 90% of robots currently in use for that purpose. More than half of the world’s robots today are dedicated to automobile production. The automotive industry plays a significant part in driving innovation in industrial robotics as a result. Today more automobile assembly processes are managed by robots than by humans.

5. Electronics

The automobile has inspired a world of consumer innovation in the field of electronics. Today’s automobiles are largely governed by electronic control systems. Name a function, the engine, the brakes, the radio, the air conditioning system, all contain electronic components. A quick survey of automobile manufacturers current models describe:


  • drive-by-wire electronic throttle and gas pedals
  • advanced cruise control features
  • infotainment systems
  • colour touch screen displays
  • multi-purpose screen technologies that display one thing to the driver and another to passengers
  • camera-based alert systems
  • forward-seeing radar
  • self-parking applications
  • road noise detection and cancelling systems
  • automobile-to-automobile communication through wireless networks
  • full windshield heads-up and in-dash displays
  • smart lights that respond to steering
  • comprehensive navigation arrays that provide direction as well as site route details


6. Artificial Intelligence

Self-parking and auto-braking are two recent innovations in the industry. As sophisticated as these enhanced technologies appear to be, they represent just the beginning of a very new type of automotive experience. In the two primitive cars that are attached to my family, both offer cruise control and antilock brakes. Both offer traction and stability control to detect changes in driving behaviour and road conditions. Both have air bags that automatically inflate on collision. They don’t have features for instance that detect rain and automatically turn on the windshield wipers. They do alert me when I’m running low on gas and tell me my rate of gas consumption. One of them, the 2-year old, rates my gas consumption driving performance, tells me the outside temperature, and can even estimate time to destination based on my driving speed.  The other, which is 5 years old is less sophisticated. I can track trip mileage and play with the 6-CD system with surround sound, automated electronic door openers and a few other gadgets. But for the most part these are dumb cars.

There is a next generation of vehicles that is showing just how far artificial intelligence can be built into the current automotive experience. I recently visited the Mercedes-Benz website to read about the S550 Luxury Sedan.

Mercedes-Benz S550 Features Advanced AI Options

The options are truly amazing, reading like a good science fiction novel. They include:

  • Attention Assist – a driver-behaviour monitoring system that detects if a driver is showing signs of fatigue and provides several types of alerts to get the driver to pull over
  • Distronic Plus – a radar-enhanced cruise control that monitors traffic in front of you, adjusts speed to maintain distance between vehicles, senses changed traffic speeds and stoppages fully adjusting speed to maintain flow, provides alarms and partial braking if it senses a problem, and engages full breaks to avoid a crash
  • Active Blind Spot Assist – alerts a driver to an unseen vehicle in an adjoining lane, warns the driver when a signal lane change is activated and a vehicle is in the blind spot, and applies breaking to one of the rear wheels of the car closest to the adjoining lane to correct the cars path to avoid a collision
  • Active Lane Keeping Assist – monitors lane drift, alerts the driver by sending a vibration through the steering wheel, and applies rear-wheel breaks selectively to correct the drift
  • Parktronic with Parking Guidance – a technology that sizes up a parking space to let the driver know the automobile can fit the space, and assist the driver in parking safely
  • Pre-Safe – an imminent collision and rollover defence system tha adjusts the seat belt, closes sun roofs and open windows to ensure driver and passenger safety
  • Nightview Assist – detects objects up to 155 meters (approximately 500 feet) ahead using invisible infrared beams and a camera, identifies warm and cold objects, displays black-and-white images in high-resolution on the dashboard screen, and detect human forms up to 100 meters (300 feet) ahead

Modern automobiles, even my 2 and 5-year old, are computer controlled. For example the Chevy Volt runs on 10 million lines of software code. Compare that to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner with 7 million or Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with a mere 6 million.

Software and electronic sensors combine to replace most of the anlaog and many of the mechanical systems that have been automobile features for close to a century. By-wire technology is used in braking and steering leading to the kinds of innovation described in the options on the S550.

To be fair to the theme of this article that the automobile is a major technology innovator, by-wire technology owes its origins to the avionics industry and an airplane that flew in 1958 but never made it into mass production, the Avro Arrow.

Avro Arrow – the First Fly-by-Wire Aircraft

Urban congestion is a driving force behind yet another application of artificial intelligence as applied to automobiles. If you have experienced driving a Segway, then you can truly appreciate that sophistication can come in very small packages. The EN-V, standing for “Environmental Vehicle” is a joint venture between Segway and General Motors.

The EN-V is electric with a single charge drive range of about 40 kilometers. It looks like a space-age pod. It is designed as a 2-passenger urban vehicle, about one-third the size of a small car. Like the Segway it is easy and intuitive to operate.

The EN-V can operate autonomously and exhibits group behaviour ability

EN-Vs can exhibit flocking behaviour, that is they can cooperate collectively when in traffic to literally join up and run in swarms. They can do this because they use Global Positioning System (GPS), vehicle-to-vehicle communications and distance-sensing technologies along with many of the safety technology options that we described when we looked at the Mercedes-Benz S550. Swarming behaviour means less traffic congestion. Autonomy means the EN-V can find the best way between the start of a trip and the end destination using its real-time traffic monitoring communication.

The EN-V is just one of many innovative concepts deploying vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. The result should be a reduction in automobile accidents, fewer deaths from fatal crashes, reduced congestion, a lower carbon footprint, cleaner air and a far more pleasant transportation experience.

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...


  • In a groundbreaking move the state of Nevada authorized the use of autonomous vehicles on its highways. As of February 2012 formal licensing procedures to test self-driving automobiles are on the books. Google is the inspiration behind this legislation. Google since 2010 has been testing autonomous vehicles with no accidents recorded to date. The legislation requires the presence of a vehicle operator should a technical glitch occur. The operator has permission to text or use a handheld cellphone. All autonomous vehicles will include a black box to track operations with the data recorded in these devices made available to government upon request.

    Google is not alone in the development of autonomous cars. General Motors in conjunction with Carnegie-Mellon University has been developing a self-driving Chevrolet Tahoe model. BMW, has also developed test vehicles.