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The Best Car Innovations of the Last 25 Years

Some auto trends were short-lived and others changed the industry forever. Here’s a look at the best car innovations of the last 25 years.

An Ever-Changing Industry

Driver putting on a seatbelt
Driver putting on a seatbelt

Great innovations have been made in the automobile industry. From the steam engine to the seatbelt to anti-lock brakes. We don’t have to go that far back to find some impressive ideas that have become reality, though. Over the past 25 years, there has been some incredible progress, with new technology making cars more accommodating than ever.

Since we’re just focusing on the past 25 years, that puts the cut-off at 1996. Anything before that isn’t eligible for this list. That’s not really a problem because, as you’re about to find out, the late 90s and 2000s have been filled with brand-new features that are hard to do without.

Automatic Liftgates

2021 Ford Escape automatic liftgate - ford.com
2021 Ford Escape automatic liftgate - ford.com

An automatic liftgate isn’t essential, but it’s one of those things that’s hard to give up once you’ve gotten used to it. You’re coming out of the store and your hands are full, carrying a boxed stereo. Or bags full of groceries. Maybe you have a child you’re trying to keep track of, too. Did I mention that it’s snowing? Almost everyone has been in that kind of situation at least once. It’s no fun fumbling through your pockets to search for your keys, without dropping the things you’re holding.

Enter 2011 and the power liftgate! The 2012 Ford Escape was one of the first vehicles to use this nifty technology in the U.S., but it was actually around in Europe before that. The European-only BMW Series Sedan and Touring featured this clever feature. The hands-free power liftgates detect the movement and electronically open or close the hatch. Change sometimes doesn’t make sense and it’s not always for the better, but this technological update was genius.

Tire Pressure Monitoring

Tire Pressure Monitoring System
Tire Pressure Monitoring System

The Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) is a sensor that can be found inside each vehicle tire. The sensor detects the amount of air pressure inside and notifies the driver if there’s not enough air pressure.

The first vehicle that used tire pressure monitoring was a 1986 Porsche 959. A sensor mounted to the wheel measured the air pressure in each tire. The system has been refined since then as it’s been increasingly implemented in several vehicles in many countries. The United States of America was the first country to require TPMS for every vehicle as of September 2007.

Having had 4 flat tires in about 5 years on my previous vehicle (lots of driving through road construction at that time), I began to fully expect the dreaded sound a flat tire makes when it’s rolling down the roadway. So, when I got a replacement vehicle, I was happy to see the air pressure readings readily available. I always have my dashboard screen selected to show the current tire pressure.

Dual-clutch transmissions

Dual Clutch Transmission - volkswagen-newsroom.com
Dual Clutch Transmission - volkswagen-newsroom.com

Even though the technology using two clutches to quickly transition from one gear to the next didn’t become widespread until the 2000s, the idea dates back to the 1930s and is credited to French engineer Adolphe Kégresse. The racing community was among the first to adopt the usage in the 1970s and 1980s, when Porsche installed their own version, the PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe), as a prototype a Porsche 956 racing car.

The concept became more popular when the 2003 Volkswagen Golf R32 became the first mass-produced vehicle to use a DCT. Now, many other performance-oriented cars also use DCTs because they the new technology allows drivers to shift in milliseconds, benefitting anyone driving a sports car and supercar. One clutch handles the odd-numbered set of gears, while the other clutch handles the even-numbered set of gears. It’s basically two separate manual transmissions within one housing. The DCT preselects one gear while the other is still being used, making for a more effortless driving experience.

2005 Volkswagen Golf R32 - netcarshow.com
2005 Volkswagen Golf R32 - netcarshow.com

Even with the faster shift times, resistance to change can sometimes happen. That’s what initially happened with the dual-clutch transmission. Volkswagen has certainly found success with DCTs. Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz, and many other car manufacturers also adopted it. Yet, Ford has struggled with performance in their early years of offering DCT in their vehicles. There were complaints of shuddering, or vibration. BMW recently eliminated DCTs from their vehicles, making the 2021 BMW M2 one of their last cars have a DCT.

Whether DCTs become harder to find, are phased out entirely, or they make a big comeback, there’s no denying the innovative design made an impact and satisfied a lot of supercar owners.

The Smart Key

Smart Key
Smart Key

Just like the power liftgate, the Smart Key offered a new way of opening up your vehicle. It allowed drivers to click a button on a fob, or remote key. Thanks to the power of radio waves, a physical key was no longer needed. That evolved into keyless entry. As long as the fob was within a short distance of the car, one touch of a button on the door handle and the door is unlocked!

I’ve used traditional keys, fobs, and keyless entry to get into my vehicles. It never bothered me to turn a key. However, after using my keyless entry, it’s hard to go back. Sometimes I’ll use a relative’s older model vehicle that doesn’t have keyless entry and it actually throws me off now. Inevitably, my keys are tucked away in a pocket with my phone and wallet. It adds maybe 10 seconds onto the process of getting into the vehicle, but when it’s sleeting or raining or snowing, the quicker I can get into my vehicle, the better!

1993 Lincoln Town Car combination lock - carsforsale.com
1993 Lincoln Town Car combination lock - carsforsale.com

Siemens first developed the smart key in 1995 and it was first implemented in the 1998 Mercedes-Benz W220 S-Class. Keyless entry can be traced back to the 1980s, though. The Ford Thunderbird, Mercury Cougar, Lincoln Town Car, and Lincoln Continental Mark VI all had a row of combination numbers on the doors. In order to get into the vehicle, one had to enter the code. These days, Tesla owners can use a smartphone app to automatically unlock their vehicle when they get within 30 feet of the vehicle. We’ve come a long way since the days of separate keys for the doors and the ignition!

Rearview Backup Cameras

2022 Mitsubishi Outlander backup camera - mitsubishicars.com
2022 Mitsubishi Outlander backup camera - mitsubishicars.com

Like a lot of this list, rearview backup cameras aren’t exactly needed. People drove cars for decades without rearview backup cameras, twisting their necks around like an owl before backing up. It sure is a nice feature to have, though. Anyone who regularly backs up a boat or a trailer knows how useful these are! I still crank my neck to make sure there’s nobody behind me when I’m backing up in a parking lot, but I enjoy the safety net of the backup camera.

These days, the rearview camera typically uses a wide-angle or fisheye lens, allowing the driver to gauge how far away their vehicle is from objects behind them. Manufacturers were working on the backup camera concept for decades. The 1956 Buick Centurion concept car had a rear-mounted television camera that transmitted images to a TV screen in the dashboard. That concept was presented at the January 1956 General Motors Motorama. Then, in 1972, the Volvo Experimental Safety Car (VESC) also utilized an early version of a backup camera.

In 2002 it was Nissan and Infiniti that helped make the rearview backup camera a more regular component of their vehicles. It started with the 2002 Infiniti Q45 and the 2002 Nissan Primera. Infiniti also helped introduce the 360-degree overhead view with the 2008 Infiniti EX35.

On-Board Diagnostics II

On-Board Diagnostic lights
On-Board Diagnostic lights

On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) was primarily intended to test vehicle emissions when it was first implemented by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 1996, but it’s since been used to detect a variety of issues in vehicles. OBD II can detect issues with the fuel systems, the transmission, problems with airbags, or almost any other issue in a vehicle. OBD II was given its name because it is an evolution from some of the first on-board diagnostics systems from the 1980s. Volkswagen and Datsun, for example, introduced computer systems with scanning ability back in the 1960s and 1970s. Those retroactively became the first OBD systems and OBD II was the modified, improved version from 1996.

The way the OBD II data is collected is fairly simple: once the car is started, the OBD system scans the vehicle, checking all components of the engine to ensure they are working properly. Auto mechanics used to determine what was wrong with a vehicle based on the owner’s description of the issue. Now, they can start with the ODB II data and further assess from there.

Mechanic checking diagnostic codes
Mechanic checking diagnostic codes

The at-home car fix is tougher because of ODB II: it diagnoses issues through codes. Instead of an alert that says there is a cylinder misfiring, it provides a code that is connected to the issue. A list of error codes that the OBD II system uses is needed when attempting any kind of at-home repair. Mechanics were actually initially hesitant about the introduction of OBD II because they were worried the emissions tracking would nullify the speed and performance modifications. That hasn’t happened though.

These days, virtually all cars in the U.S. are sold with an OBD II connection. Those trouble codes have become an important notification in letting a car owner know their vehicle has an issue, and also a starting point for a mechanic when attempting to solve the problem.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth connectivity - nissanusa.com
Bluetooth connectivity - nissanusa.com

Voice-activated Bluetooth is certainly a convenience, but it’s probably saved a lot of lives by preventing distracted drivers from causing wrecks. The technology prompts devices within a certain range to connect without wires and allows a driver to keep his or her head up and eyes on the road. Pressing a button on your steering wheel and saying, “Call Dad,” is much safer than fumbling through your contacts list with one hand on the steering wheel.

The technology was being looked at in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until June of 2000 that the Ericsson T36, one of the very first phones with Bluetooth capability, went to market. Chrysler was one of the first vehicle manufacturers to take advantage of this. In 1999, they introduced a Bluetooth-capable system in some of their 2000 model year vehicles.

2020 Acura RDX Android Auto - hondanews.com
2020 Acura RDX Android Auto - hondanews.com

Fast forward to 2004 and BMW and Lexus were also offering Bluetooth in certain models. Add on another four years and more affordable models, like the 2009 Nissan Sentra, the 2009 Ford Focus, and the 2009 Honda Civic EX, had Bluetooth capability. Now, of course, a majority of vehicles have Bluetooth capability. Car shoppers expect them to. That’s why this feature won’t be going away anytime soon.

GPS Satellite Navigation

2022 Nissan Pathfinder - nissanusa.com
2022 Nissan Pathfinder - nissanusa.com

Does anyone miss printing out directions from MapQuest or using actual physical maps? I know I don’t! Driving in a new city (after an unexpected road delay) and trying to find a McDonald’s or a gas station was never fun. Worse yet, trying to find a specific address and dealing with road construction detours! Now, you can get directions in seconds. I still have a city map in my glove box, just in case, but I fully appreciate the conveniences of GPS satellite navigation.

Although the global positioning system (GPS) technology wasn’t implemented until 2000, it was being used before that. The U.S. Air Force first launched GPS in 1978 through a Navigation System with Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR) satellite.

Honda's Electro Gyrocator - global.honda
Honda's Electro Gyrocator - global.honda

Some civilian use was already happening in the 1980s though. The 1981 Honda Accord and Honda Vigor (sold in Japan) both had an option of using Honda‘s Electro Gyrocator, a map-based navigation system. Mazda has a strong claim that their 1990 Eunos Cosmos was the first vehicle with GPS, thanks to their touchscreen Car Control System (CCS). General Motors was using a GuideStar system, primarily in rental vehicles in Florida. Garmin introduced their GPS system in 1998.

In the late 90s, the U.S. intentionally degraded the accuracy of the system so that it couldn’t be used against the military, putting them in harm’s way. By May 2000, though, the U.S. changed their tune and GPS products exploded, individually and in vehicles. The 2001 model year is when most cars started really using GPS in a big way. After starting with a single satellite launch, there are now a total of 31 GPS satellites being used to direct drivers to their destinations all over the world.

Hybrid & Electric Vehicles

1997 Toyota Prius - pressroom.toyota.com
1997 Toyota Prius - pressroom.toyota.com

It wasn’t that long ago that hybrid or electric vehicles just didn’t exist. The first widely available vehicles that combined a conventional internal combustion engine and an electric propulsion system was the Toyota Prius in 1997 (only available in Japan) and the 1999 Honda Insight. The Toyota Prius was then released worldwide in 2000. The build-up to those vehicle releases started in another century.

William H. Patton filed a patent for a gasoline-electric hybrid rail-car propulsion system in 1889. A prototype was built and a production locomotive was sold by 1891. The 1900s are filled with stories like that from inventors who were thinking far beyond their current times. Some experimental cars in the 1960s were achieving 55 mph with a 40-mile range off of nickel-iron batteries. It was in 1997 that Lithium-ion cells became available and the EV trend exploded, leading to the creation of Tesla.

2021 Hyundai Ioniq EV - hyundainews.com
2021 Hyundai Ioniq EV - hyundainews.com

Kinks are still being worked out of hybrid vehicles and full-on EVs today. How long a charge can be held, how big the batteries are, how much space the batteries take up inside the vehicle, and access to charging stations are all things buyers consider when making the decision to buy an EV. The evolution certainly isn’t complete yet.

Will the current versions of hybrid or electric cars finally take over the car market? Or will there be another evolution in this idea that takes the market in a different direction? From an environmental standpoint and a technological standpoint, people are anxious to find out.

Autonomous Driving Systems

Ford Enhanced Park Assist feature - media.ford.com
Ford Enhanced Park Assist feature - media.ford.com

A lot of aspects fit under ‘autonomous driving systems.’ Automatic parking, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind spot monitoring, lane keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control are just some of the advances in this area. All those driving aids have been increasingly moving from the whiteboard to the roadway since the turn of the century. These autonomous features really are just the beginning.

Thanks to technology based on cameras and long-range radars, cars can maintain a constant speed, stop, and maneuver in ways they’ve never been able to before. These abilities are put to use in a variety of settings, too, from roadways to parking lots.

GM’s Super Cruise system is one that allows a driver to take his or her hands off the wheel entirely. The system has calculated how to drive on specific roads. The GM Super Cruise system, available on select 2022 models, can be used on more than 200,000 miles of U.S. highways and roadways. By 2023, GM wants to have that system available in 22 models.

2019 Cadillac CT6 with engaged Super Cruise - media.gm.com
2019 Cadillac CT6 with engaged Super Cruise - media.gm.com

Each auto company is quickly working on several aspects of autonomous driving. The systems range from level 0, where the car issues warnings, to level 5, where there is no human intervention at all. The rest of the levels involve various degrees of autonomy. There aren’t currently any level 5 vehicles in production, but the other levels are already available or are being tested in specific geographic areas.

It may be another couple of decades before a good percentage of the general population is able to completely rely on their vehicle to do their driving, but the progress that has been made in just the past few years can’t go unmentioned. As we continue down the self-driving cars path, be sure to look at our previous blog: 5 Things to Know About Self-Driving Cars.

What Does the Future Hold?

2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS MBUX Hyperscreen - Mr. Benz on youtube.com
2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS MBUX Hyperscreen - Mr. Benz on youtube.com

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “the only constant in life is change.” Sometimes it’s an idea that prompts change drivers didn’t even know they needed. Other times, the innovation takes shape as the solution to an existing problem. One of the most exciting parts about the announcement of a new model or trim is a chance for new or upgraded features.

It’s hard to say what features will become fixtures of the driving experience and which won’t, but there are most certainly ideas that we don’t even know about, already being tested on prototypes. There are some impressive innovations that we didn’t even touch upon, like hill start assist, automatic LED lights, and head-up displays. An interior that transforms and smart glass that shields the sunlight are already being placed into concept cars like the Audi Skysphere and the Mercedes F015! Where we’re headed is anyone’s guess, but it’ll be a fun ride getting there.

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Jesse Batson

Jesse Batson earned his journalism degree from South Dakota State University. No stranger to newsgathering and reporting, Jesse spent 13 years in TV news. 10 of those years were spent working in Charlotte, NC, home of NASCAR. A highlight of his time there was being able to take a lap around the Charlotte Motor Speedway. His interest in vehicles, starting with Matchbox cars, a Big Wheel, and the Transformers, evolved into taking photos of motocross events. Now, he puts his research skills to use on car culture, reviews, and comparisons.

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