In one of the Star Trek movies, there’s a scene where the character ‘Scotty’ tried talking to a computer to get it to do something. In his era, thousands of years in the future, such interaction with computers was normal but he had gone back in time to a period when computers were still just ‘dumb’ machines.

In the same way, if a motorist from today could travel back in time to just 50 or 60 years ago, he would be quite surprised at how few convenience features were available in cars back then. Of course, older motorists of today will still remember the time when, as small children, they saw their father inserting a key to start the engine. Today, even with a low-priced model, they just have to press a button to do the same thing.

In the first 60 years of the automobile’s life, the increase in the number of convenience features was not rapid, partly because things were mechanical. The electronic age had not yet arrived and operations had to be executed by mechanical controls and small motors. Miniaturisation was also not pursued so many items remained large and bulky, like audio systems.

From the 1980s onwards, when electronics and computerisation started to be widely available to industries, it became possible to make things smaller, cheaper, lighter and more capable. Among the early conveniences were power windows – just press a button and the glass went up or down. Though the basic mechanism was the same, an electric motor did the work and in time, with the winder completely absent, the door panels could be reshaped to be more aesthetically attractive.

The same thing happened with door locks; no longer do you need to use a key to unlock the door and start the engine. It’s all done by pushbuttons and sensors. The next evolution will see doors opening by themselves although that is already available with tailgates that automatically open and close.

But most of the features started off in the more expensive models because they were expensive initially. Over time, as the volume increased rapidly and more companies made them, the cost quickly went down and could be offered in cheaper models. An example of this evolution would be electrically-adjusted seats. These were first offered in only the most expensive cars and to have them was a ‘luxurious’ touch.

Your grandfather would be amazed at how the dashboard has changed too. In his time (say in the 1950s), the dashboard was a simple affair that had some switches and vents for air from the outside to come in. Ahead of the steering wheel was the instrument panel which had mechanical meters to show the coolant temperature, fuel level and speed; tachometers were rare then and mainly found in sportscars.

Today, the dashboard in some cars resembles something out of an aircraft with many switches and displays which show maps that pinpoint your location. The instrument panel is also more sophisticated and provides much more information. In some of the newer models, the traditional meters have long been gone and graphic panels allow different layouts to be selected.

Even more amazing would be the Head-Up Display or HUD (shown above), something taken from fighter aircraft. The first cars had such a feature in the mid-1990s but it’s only in this decade that it is becoming available in more models. With the HUD, some information is projected onto the windscreen ahead so that the driver does not have to look down and away from the road ahead. This helps to improve driving safety as the eyes will always be looking ahead.

Even for the rear passengers, more convenience features have been added over the years to make journeys more enjoyable and comfortable. On more expensive models, there are display monitors at the back of the front headrests or on the ceiling so movies can be watched. Separate controls are provided for air-conditioning systems so that those at the back can adjust the temperature or speed to suit their preference. And as everyone carries some sort of electronic device these days, cars now come with USB ports for recharging the devices.

Computerisation and electronics have enabled cars to become much safer. Thanks to the powerful yet small computers than can be installed, active safety systems can now manage braking to prevent skidding (ABS) and even stabilize the car if it should skid during cornering. More advanced systems now monitor the road ahead and if it seems like the driver is not going to brake in time to avoid hitting a car ahead, the brakes will automatically be activated.

And yes, it is now also possible to talk to your car too! Many models now have voice-command systems which will make adjustments to the sound system or air-conditioner, make calls for you and with the new Proton X70, even open the sunroof! Before long, with autonomous technology, you will be able to get in the car and say where you want to go and it will take you there. ‘Scotty’ would feel right at home in this age of motoring!

[Chips Yap]

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