Hooniverse Asks: What was the Last Really Important Innovation in Automotive Design?

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Design innovation is sort of a subjective category. Some seemingly great advancements—say the oscillating center vents on the Mazda 626 of a decade or more back—get consigned to the patent office dust heap. Others, like direct injection, become standards that almost all cars eventually adopt.
When it comes to cars, it seems like innovation has slowed considerably in the past few years. Oh sure there’s a move afoot to smaller engines with turbochargers and superchargers but haven’t we seen that all before?
It’s hard in fact to point to the last truly revolutionary innovation that has affected the automotive world. Or, at least it’s hard for me. What do you think was the last really important automotive innovation to arrive and really stick?
Image: BaT

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  1. Maymar Avatar

    The most recent thing I can think of is still about 20 years old, but still, stability control has undoubtedly saved lives, and has probably helped accelerate today’s horsepower wars (your call if that’s good or bad).

    1. karonetwentyc Avatar

      I see where you’re going with this, but I’d argue that it’s also made chassis designers lazy in some cases. There are cars that are virtually undriveable with the electronic stability aids, etc. switched off.

      1. Maymar Avatar

        Oh, fully agreed. Also, it probably bought the SUV a couple years until we got to the crossover (I remember ESP being a big talking point for the original Benz ML), which I side as a general negative.

    2. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      ASR but not ABS? Without which ASR wouldn’t be possible?

      1. Maymar Avatar

        Sure, but the question was about the last great innovation, and stability is obviously more recent than ABS.

        1. Rover 1 Avatar
          Rover 1

          You are, of course, completely correct. What was I thinking? It’s already Friday night here, so I blame the wine. 🙂

  2. Fred Talmadge Avatar
    Fred Talmadge

    Putting bluetooth in cars, along with steering wheel controls. hands free phone and internet music. Best tech on my TSX

  3. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
    Dean Bigglesworth

    My first thought is materials, high strength steel in particular. Even though it has become mainstream fairly quickly in the last decade or so it probably doesn’t qualify as revolutionary, though, since it is still steel.
    CAD might also be a contender.
    *funny line about flowerpots in beetles or something*

  4. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

    Variable valve timing. Advancing and retarding spark mixed with when, how high and how long the valves stay open has caused 40 mpg to be the new 30 mpg which was the new 20 mpg, etc.
    As far as real-world gains, this has given the consumer more HP, better MPG and made the I-4 a viable engine for the mass-market.

    1. Lokki Avatar

      For the record ( and for the pride of Alfisti everywhere) – Alfa Romeo was the first to use variable valve timing in a production car, in the Alfa Spider of 1980.

      1. Kiefmo Avatar

        ::Honda fanboy grumbles about the fact that Honda took the idea and made it actually work::

        1. Alff Avatar

          Hey, Alfa’s worked as intended – to pass emissions. Decades later, VW doesn’t get a hall pass for following a similar strategy.

          1. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            There is no such thing as pedantry on Hooniverse.

  5. 0A5599 Avatar

    Electric cars with decent performance, acceptable range, and appealing packaging.

    1. kogashiwa Avatar

      I was going to say hybrids, and I do think there’s a case to be made for that, but hybrids were never going to be more than an intermediate phase.

  6. Lokki Avatar

    My vote is for electric power steering. I don’t believe that the current electric car trend would be viable without electric power steering.

    1. Tanshanomi Avatar

      Would not have followed that train of thought, but excellent point.

    2. Kiefmo Avatar

      What, you can’t imagine a Tesla rolling around with a grumbling, groaning FoMoCo-grade hydraulic pump underhood?

  7. JayP Avatar

    The last really important innovation?
    Lightweight materials, 3D printing?
    Dean may have it with CAD but I’ll add CNC. Imagine trying to make a Tesla with a slide rule.

  8. smalleyxb122 Avatar

    Magnetorheological fluid (ferrofluid). It may never become ubiquitous, as conventional dampers will remain “good enough” for most applications, but MR dampers are becoming commonplace within certain market segments, and they are here to stay.

    1. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar

      They are pretty cool, but lemme tell yuh, when you have to replace a couple, it’s NOT an inexpensive part.

  9. Alan Cesar Avatar
    Alan Cesar

    The car-based minivan with sliding doors. They drive and ride well, get good fuel economy, fit lots of people and/or cargo in reasonable comfort, and some can even tow moderate loads.

    1. Inliner Avatar

      Nearly everything can tow – it’s just a matter of for how long and at what speed.

  10. Tanshanomi Avatar

    The worldwide standardization of the OBDII/CANBus interface. It has made a whole raft of advancements in engine management, chassis dynamics, data logging, instrumentation, tuning, safety and diagnostics not just possible, but quite slickly manageable.

    1. crank_case Avatar

      You’ll probably start to see CANBus being at least replaced by ethernet soon enough though.

  11. BigRedCaveTroll Avatar

    Radial tires.

  12. Alff Avatar


  13. XRSevin Avatar

    Start-stop technology.

  14. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    Not just streamlining, but actual, proper wind-tunnel design. Without the advancements of the early ’80s cars would look a whole lot different.
    I didn’t necessarily say worse…

      1. karonetwentyc Avatar

        1974: Citroën provides Toyota with twelve years’ worth of exterior styling for the Prius.

        1. Rover 1 Avatar
          Rover 1

          And it’s shape was presaged with the GS

  15. crank_case Avatar

    BMWs 21st century revival of Body on chassis construction for the 21st century incorporating composites. I think this is where the next leap is going to happen and not just in EVs, everything is probably slowly going to move away from pressed steel bodies to different contstruction, perhaps along the lines of Gordon Murrays iStream ideas to get lighter weight, better fuel efficiency and niche models that can be turned around more quickly and more locally without the need for huge tooling and large manufacturing plants

  16. texpat Avatar

    I think the biggest changes have been 1) fuel injection, 2) anti-lock brakes 3) turbocharging.
    Fuel injection eliminated the pinking/detonation that used to be prevalent.
    Anti-lock brakes really help you not crash.
    Turbo’s improved performance whilst maintaining fuel economy.
    Other items like stability control barely move the needle, except for a lucky few. In 70,000 miles of driving the stability control cut in once on an autocross course … YMMV.

  17. Vairship Avatar

    Not having to buy kitchen cabinets complete with sink at the local boat club?

  18. Ted Odell Avatar
    Ted Odell

    At the risk of bringing on a lot of hate, I’ll put forth Manumatics (dual clutch automatics). I know purists still like the third petal. But, the ability to satisfy my desire to control gear selection (and quite rapidly) with my wife’s desire for an automatic has brought marital peace into our home.