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When It Comes to Cars, Old Technologies Are New Again

By the end of next year, at least three automakers, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota, will be offering U.S. motorists new fuel-cell vehicles running on hydrogen rather than gasoline. They bill the technology as an environmental breakthrough, the first step toward what some are calling a “Hydrogen Society.”

But while hydrogen may be the fuel of the future, fuel cells have a surprisingly long past. The technology got its first serious use during the Apollo moon mission, and actually dates back to the mid-19th Century. Indeed, many of the technologies now showing up in today’s most advanced vehicles have a long history dating back decades and, in some instances, centuries.

The idea for the automobile itself can be traced back at least to the days of the Roman Empire when a self-propelled carriage — powered by tightly wound human hair, much like a rubber band – was driven into the Coliseum to entertain 2nd-Century Emperor Commodus.

It’s not unusual for scientists and engineers to come up with great ideas that show tremendous promise but can’t immediately be put to practical use. That’s been the challenge that automotive manufacturers have faced since the days before Henry Ford finally figured out how to make a workable moving assembly line.

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Many of the features now working their way into the automobile are benefiting from the development of new materials, but the real breakthrough is the microprocessor that seems to make almost everything smaller, lighter and more efficient.

Take the big V8 in the Chevrolet Corvette. It can yield as much as 31 miles per gallon on the highway, the sort of numbers not long ago associated with economy cars, not high-powered sports cars. One of the tricks is a system called Displacement-on-Demand. When the ‘Vette is cruising along, half of its cylinders can shut down, reducing fuel consumption.

GM first introduced the concept three decades ago as the V8-6-4 on several Cadillac models. The engine was supposed to switch between eight-, six- and four-cylinder modes, but without today’s electronic controls it was so rough and unreliable most owners had the system disabled.

International Geneva motorshow, Mercedes-Maybach Pullman S600
The Mercedes-Maybach Pullman S600 is show on the first day of International Geneva motorshow in Switzerland on March 3. Petr Mlch / AP

Another example is the new Mercedes-Maybach S600, which features a technology called Magic Body Control. It uses a camera system mounted on the windshield, behind the rearview mirror, to scan the road ahead. Then it automatically adjusts the big luxury sedan’s shock absorbers, among other things, to soften the jolt of a pothole, for instance.

Nissan tried a similar concept in 1988 on its Maxima sedan, using sonar sensors mounted under the car. But the technology simply wasn’t yet ready for prime time.

Cutting edge transmission traces to da Vinci

Another example is the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), which is featured in a number of other new vehicles, including the redesigned-for-2015 Honda Fit. Instead of the normal fixed, or stepped, gears that you find in automatics and manual gearboxes, a CVT uses a tightly-stretched belt to link two, cone-shaped shafts, one connected to the engine, another to the driven wheels. By adjusting the position of the belt and shafts, you can run the engine at or near its optimum speed, depending on whether you’re looking for performance, fuel economy or the best blend of both.

Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, in 1490, show the concept of a CVT. Milton Reeves put the idea to practical use for saw mills in 1879. And by 1900 several unsuccessful attempts had been made to use it in a car – about the time Charles H. Duell, then director of the U.S. Patent Office, declared “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Maybe he was right. Millions of cars are now sold each year with onboard navigation systems, while countless more motorists use aftermarket “navi” devices. The first satellite-based system, the Etak Navigator, was introduced in 1984 by Nolan Bushnell – better known as the man behind the Atari videogame system.

Etak Electronic Navigation System
The Etak Electronic Navigation System. Roger Ressmeyer / CORBIS

But a primitive navigation system appeared about eight decades earlier. It used a speedometer-like cable to track how far a vehicle had driven and to turn a player piano-style roll. Instead of striking notes, however, the system would turn a toy car mounted in a box on top of the dashboard to signal when to turn. The system was highly inaccurate and could only be used on a handful of pre-selected roads.

With the fuel cell, Welsh physicist and attorney William Gove is generally given credit for inventing the first fuel cell stack, which combines hydrogen and oxygen to create electric current. The first significant application was to provide power for the manned capsules of the Apollo space program. Automakers have been tinkering with the technology ever since and some believe hydrogen cars will replace batteries and gasoline alike as tomorrow’s clean alternative.

Oruktor Amphibolos
The Oruktor Amphibolos (Amphibious Digger) a steam-powered dredge built by American inventor Oliver Evans of Philadelphia in 1804 for use in the city's dockyards. Hulton Archive / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

As for the car itself, the Romans apparently never could come up with a way to make that hair-powered concept practical. American inventor Oliver Evans got a little bit further with his crude steam-powered dredge, Orukter Amphibolous, which set to work in Philadelphia’s busy harbor in 1805. He even charged curious onlookers a quarter to see it work. But it wasn’t until the German Carl Benz came along in 1885 that the first practical car rolled down the road.

A Benz Patent-Motorwagen, displayed at the Techno-Classica world trade fair for vintage, classic and prestige automobiles in Essen, Germany, on April 1, 2011. The very first automobile was invented by German Carl Benz in 1886. The world's first car had one cylinder and 1 horse power. Martin Meissner / AP file

Ever since, inventors and engineers have been adding new technologies to make driving safer, faster, more fuel-efficient, comfortable and fun. Even if it sometimes takes years, decades or even longer to get it right.

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