The 10 Biggest Milestones Automotive Electronics History

Electronics have made vehicles better, safer, and more fuel-efficient.
  • By 2030, as autonomous cars take their place in society, most experts expect electronics to account for 50% of a vehicle’s value.

    But automotive electronics didn’t start with the drive for autonomy—not by a long shot. Electronics started its march to automotive prominence back in 1955 with the introduction of the first transistorized car radio. And it has continued to gain momentum ever since. The value of the electronics in a vehicle has jumped by a factor of ten over that time, rising from 3% of a car’s cost in the 1960s to about 30% today, according to

    Here, we’ve collected photos of the technologies that laid the foundation of engineering knowledge that will one day culminate in the birth of the autonomous car. From early radios to more recent safety electronic advancements, here are a few of the best. (Image source: Cadillac)

  • 1. Radio 

    The automotive electronics era dawned in 1955—some 13 years before the invention of the microprocessor—when Chrysler and Philco teamed up to introduce the “world’s first all-transistor car radio.” The tubeless Mopar Model 914HR, which contained an amazing 12 transistors, was an option on Chrysler and Imperial car models. Its big advantage was size. Only 20 years earlier, car radios had weighed as much as 50 lbs and had taken up eight liters of space. In contrast, the Mopar measured a scant 13 x 3 x 8 inches. The transistorized radio offered more than just size reduction, however. It also delivered a new level of luxury, as its 12th transistor served as a pre-amp for an optional in-car record player. (Image source: Wikipedia/ By Historianbuff)

  • 2. Alternator

    Electronics made its next big step into the automotive arena on the 1960 Plymouth Valiant, which employed an alternator instead of a generator. The alternator—considered electronic by virtue of its use of a silicon diode rectifier—represented another big step forward for the automobile. Automakers liked the alternator because it enabled them to handle the larger electrical loads from big headlamps, windshield wipers, heated rear windows, and other accessories. Alternators were also lighter, more rugged, and could provide more useful electrical current at idle. (Image source: Piero at Dutch Wikipedia)

  • 3. Electronic ignition

    Electronics offered a pragmatic solution to commercial automotive ignition systems starting in 1963. By using an angular sensor (such as a Hall Effect sensor) to replace the so-called breaker “points” on an ignition system, solid state electronics reduced mechanical wear problems and improved engine efficiency. In ’63, Pontiac became the first automaker to offer an optional electronic ignition when it rolled out the breakerless, magnetic-pulse-triggered Delcotronic. Soon afterward, Hyland Electronics introduced the first commercially available, all-solid-state, capacitive discharge ignition and the technology took off. Today, electronic ignitions are available on lawn mowers, chain saws, and string trimmers. (Image source: Wikipedia/ By Dmitry G)

  • 4. Antilock braking

    The debut of antilock braking in 1971 marked the next big success for electronics. Chrysler, teaming with Bendix Corp., introduced a computerized, three-channel, four-sensor, all-wheel ABS called Sure Brake in its 1971 Imperial. At the same time, Ford rolled out Sure-Track on its Lincoln Continentals; General Motors introduced Trackmaster on rear-wheel drive Cadillacs; and Toyota came out with anti-skid brakes on the Toyota Crown. Although each manufacturer’s product varied slightly, the basic concept was always the same: A controller monitored rotational speed at each wheel. If it detected a lock-up, it would pulse hydraulic braking power to the affected wheel. The key concept—that a human couldn’t pump the brakes as fast as a computerized system—continues to be the reason for ABS’s prominence today. (Image source: Wikipedia/ By Samf4u)

  • 5. Engine control

    The transistor’s next big success was the internal combustion engine. Although electromechanical solutions had been contemplated much earlier, the first real electronic solution arrived in 1979. Early engine control modules (ECMs) of that era used a very limited form of electronics: a lookup table stored in a digital read-only memory (ROM) chip. But it was nevertheless electronic. By 1980, General Motors had graduated from that methodology to a full-blown microprocessor-based solution and the race for electronic control took off. Such microprocessor-based methodologies turned out to be amazingly important in the quest for fuel efficiency because they enabled the engine to optimize its own performance by comparing sensor information to values in the lookup tables. With that in-depth knowledge, the engine could react accordingly. Prior to that, parameters such as air-fuel ratio and ignition timing were controlled mechanically (and pneumatically) and engines were therefore far less efficient. Today, automakers wouldn’t dream of trying to meet CAFE regulations without electronic control. (Image source: Wikipedia/ By User: Mgiardina09)

  • 6. Airbags

    The concept of the airbag dates back as far as 1952, but it didn’t start gaining traction until the 1970s and didn’t become fully electronic until the early ‘80s. By that time, companies such as Mercedes-Benz and Porsche had transitioned from electromechanical systems to electronics. By 1988, Chrysler became the first US company to offer standard driver’s side bags and the concept gained momentum. Today, airbags employ an electronic control unit, which monitors data from accelerometers, pressure sensors, wheel speed sensors, and gyroscopes. Based on that information, the controller can determine the force, angle, and severity of a crash. The National Highway Traffic Administration estimates that in its first 30 years, the airbag saved approximately 28,000 lives in the US. (Image source: By Janipewter at the English Wikipedia)

  • 7. Transmission control

    Transmissions graduated to electronic control in the late 1980s. Building on the knowledge gained from their experience in engine control, engineers began developing new control schemes to make transmissions as efficient as the rest of the powertrain. In essence, their solution was to create controllers that examined acceleration, wheel speed, gear ratios, and other data, and then shifted the transmission by actuating solenoids. Up to that time, transmissions had used spring-loaded valves in the valve body to initiate shifts. But by migrating to electronics, automakers found that they could get more precise control of shift points as well as faster, smoother shifts. Today, all transmissions are electronically controlled—either by a dedicated transmission controller or by a powertrain controller that also manages the engine. (Image source: Wikipedia/ By Ritchyblack - Stefan Krause)

  • 8. GPS navigation

    The event that brought GPS navigation to the masses occurred in 1983, when a commercial airliner was shot down after a navigational error caused it to wander into Soviet airspace. President Reagan reacted by making the technology available for civilian use, and it quickly spread. Automakers found that GPS, which uses a network of global satellites to calculate location, offered amazingly accurate results. By 1990, Mazda had incorporated GPS on its Eunos Cosmo, making the Cosmo the first production car in the world to feature on-board navigation. Garmin put it into handheld systems in 1991 and Toyota later offered it as a factory-installed option on the Prius hybrid in ’97. Today, the technology is available on virtually every smart phone. (Image source: Wikipedia/ By Paul Vlaar)

  • 9. Backup cameras

    Interior backup displays took off with the rise of affordable charge-coupled device (CCD) cameras. The first backup camera debuted in 1991 on the Toyota Soarer Limited, a vehicle only available in Japan. The Soarer used a color screen in its head unit and a CCD-mounted camera on its rear spoiler. Although that particular application was discontinued in 1997, backup cameras forged ahead. Nissan’s luxury Infiniti Division rolled out a product called RearView Monitor in 2002. Soon afterward, the technology caught the eye of government regulators, who saw it as an important child safety feature. Today, all cars sold in the US must include backup cameras, per a mandate from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (Image source: Wikipedia)

  • 10. Electronic stability control

    Perhaps the most underestimated technology in the automotive electronics arena, electronic stability control (ESC) has already saved countless lives. In truth, it’s an overlay on antilock brakes, but it’s an application that engineers didn’t initially see. Its main components are a lateral accelerometer, gyroscope, yaw-rate sensor, steering angle sensor, and an electronic controller. Together, the sensors enable a vehicle to “know” if it’s yawing—that is, spinning about its yaw axis. Using that information, ESC can actuate the correct wheel brake via ABS and stop the yaw. The result: no more “doing doughnuts” on icy or snowy streets. Estimates from the National Highway Traffic Administration and the Insurance Institute suggest that ESC reduces single-vehicle crashes by between 35% and 56%. (Image source: Bosch Automotive)

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

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