A Look Back–and a Look Forward–at the Changes in Automotive Technology

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When the ball drops in Times Square on January 1st, 2020, we won’t just be entering a new year—we’ll be entering a new decade as well. There have been many changes between 2010 and 2020, but especially in the automotive industry where advancements are happening at a lightning-fast pace.

As we enter a new year, let’s look back at the biggest changes in the automotive industry from the past decade.

Before we head into the new year, let’s take a look at the biggest changes from the past decade, while also forecasting ten years into the future.

Remembering the previous decade

Technology is a wonderful thing. Within the last decade, cars have improved significantly, thanks to microprocessors, computer code, and many bright minds.

Modern vehicles are more efficient and more powerful than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that today’s cars are trouble-free. For a better understanding of both the good and the bad, let’s explore how automotive technology has evolved over the last ten years.

The good

The last decade has brought tremendous change in all aspects of our lives. It’s easy to be negative, but at least in the auto industry, most of the changes have been for the better.

Here are some examples:

A greater number of hybrids and EVs

A decade ago, you wouldn’t have seen many (or any) electric vehicles (EVs) or hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) on the street. That’s because, with the exception of the Toyota Prius, there were very few electrified cars in production.

Back in 2010, the Chevy Volt, which is often touted as the first mass-produced EV in the U.S. (even though it has a gas generator), had yet to debut. At the same time, Tesla’s first consumer-ready model, the 2008 Roadster, was just two years into production.

Electric vehicles are gaining acceptance from the general public.

Slowly but surely, EVS and HEVs started to catch on. Fast-forward to 2020, and nearly every automaker produces a hybrid vehicle, an electric vehicle, or both. Furthermore, the technology powering these cars has improved tremendously.

Ongoing improvements in battery technology continue to make EVs a more realistic choice for the average consumer. Consider, for example, the Nissan Leaf. When the car first debuted in 2011, it had a limited range of around 72 miles. Now, the 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus has an EPA-estimated range of 226 miles. Quite an improvement.

These days, EVs and HEVs aren’t just about making an environmental statement. Electrified vehicles have gained acceptance from the general public—and that’s a good thing. Ultimately, more EVs and HEVs mean less fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions.

More powerful and efficient internal combustion engines

Although electric vehicles are becoming more commonplace, the internal-combustion engine isn’t going anywhere—at least not within the next decade. But traditional gas-powered engines have seen some significant changes, making them more efficient—and more powerful—than ever before.

Thanks to modern technology, engines can now provide exceptional fuel economy without sacrificing performance. Fuel-saving features, such as variable valve timing, cylinder deactivation and engine start/stop, are now commonplace.

Engines are also getting smaller, yet they’re just as perky (if not perkier) than their predecessors. There are several ways automakers reduce displacement while also increasing power—one of which is turbocharging.

A key example is Ford’s EcoBoost three-cylinder engine. The turbocharged power plant turns out a respectable 123 horsepower, despite its diminutive size. By comparison, a V8-powered Mustang from the late 1970s makes just 11 more ponies (134 hp).

Smarter electronics led to greater dependability and safety

Even in 2010, the average car had at least 30 computers onboard. Naturally, that number has continued to climb during the last decade. Modern automotive technologies, such as infotainment centers and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), require exceptional computing power.

Overall, electronics and computer controls have made cars more reliable and more comfortable. While some automotive enthusiasts love to reminisce about the days of carburetors, the truth is, that archaic technology was frustratingly undependable.

As cars get smarter, generally, they become more reliable.

Cars became more reliable such as having advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).

Vehicles are also getting safer all the time. For instance, in 2013, anti-lock braking systems (ABS) became mandatory on all new cars. Five years later, backup cameras became a requirement on every new car sold.

Now, ADAS features, such as collision mitigation and lane departure warning, are the pinnacle of in-vehicle protection. The current wave of driver assistance functions has some flaws but overall, the technology is exceptional and has the potential to save many lives.

The bad

And now for the bad.

As was mentioned earlier, today’s automotive technology has created some unique issues. Let’s take a look.

A growing number of software bugs

Cars have more computers onboard than ever before—and that means they also have more software bugs. A growing number of technical service bulletins (TSBs) and recalls are dedicated to programming and other computer-related fixes.

The good news is, with the proper equipment, performing a software update is pretty straightforward. In the future, reprogramming will become even easier as automakers shift to over-the-air (OTA) software updates. Ford, for instance, has promised to fit many of its 2020 model lineup with OTA technology.

More gadgets equal more expensive cars

Another drawback is that cars are getting more and more expensive. Now, even entry-level models are equipped with costly technologies, such as touchscreen infotainment systems and ADAS functions. High-tech features such as these are driving up new vehicle prices. According to Kelley Blue Book, as of May 2019, the average cost of a new car was $37,185.

Predictions for the Upcoming Decade

The decade that’s ending has seen enormous changes—but it’ll be nothing compared to the next one. The coming decade is going to see seismic shifts for cars in the U.S.

Here’s what to expect:

Even more hybrid and electric vehicles

The International Energy Agency predicts the number of EVs worldwide will reach 125 million by 2030. That’s a massive increase, considering there were just 3.1 million EVs in 2017, according to estimates.

Of course, much of that growth will take place in China, the leading purveyor of EVs, but the United States will also see an uptick in electrified vehicles.

The global spread of EVs is already in motion. In the U.S, there are 16 different pure-electric vehicles available for the 2020 model year. Buyers can also choose from a wide variety of hybrid cars, trucks, vans and SUVs.

Electric vehicles, along with the corresponding infrastructure, are getting better all the time. Battery capacities are improving and more DC fast-charging stations are popping up. Some industry insiders, such as Green Tech Media, anticipate there will be 40 million charging points worldwide by 2030.

It is expected that EVs will spread more globally and level 3 autonomy is just around the corner.

Level 3 autonomous vehicles

There are six levels of autonomy (starting at zero) as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

You might already own a vehicle with Level 1 autonomy, if your car has ADAS features. Furthermore, your vehicle may be equipped with Level 2 autonomy, if it has an autopilot system, such as Nissan’s ProPilot Assist or Cadillac’s Super Cruise.

And Level 3 autonomy is just around the corner. In fact, the technology is already available on a production vehicle, the Audi A8. But due to several restrictions, the sedan is not offered with Audi’s Level 3 self-driving technology, called Traffic Jam Pilot, in the United States.

So, what’s the difference between Level 2 and Level 3 autonomy? A Level 2, the vehicle can perform steering and acceleration tasks, but the driver must continuously monitor all functions. At Level 3, although the driver must stay alert, the car can perform all tasks and drive itself under certain conditions.

In essence, Levels 2 and below are considered driver support features. Levels 3 and up are considered automated driving features. Level 3 autonomy has the potential to provide several benefits, including greater efficiency and safer driving.

As for Level 4 and Level 5 autonomy, both appear to be more than a decade away. Eventually, however, these more advanced self-driving cars will hit the road. When that happens, they will likely serve as rideshare vehicles, at least in the beginning. Robo taxis will whisk people about, providing mobility for the elderly and the disabled.
Cars are going to become increasingly complex

The high-tech features of tomorrow, such as long-range batteries and self-driving systems, are incredibly sophisticated. Adding these technologies will force vehicles to become increasingly complex. A greater number of repairs will be dedicated to software, rather than mechanical components, making the shade tree mechanic a thing of the past.

With that caveat, it’s worth noting that consumers will need to be more cautious of where they get their car fixed. Many repair facilities may not have the training or the equipment to work on the next-generation of vehicles. Even now, some shops struggle to repair today’s complex cars—and that struggle is only going to become more real.

Changes are coming – buckle up

A decade ago, Snapchat didn’t exist and Steve Jobs was just introducing the first iPad. It’s incredible – and exciting – how much technology can change in just ten years. As we march forward into the next decade, we can anticipate breakthrough advancements in automotive technology.

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Staff Writers

In the Garage with CarParts.com is an online blog dedicated to bringing DIYers and devoted car enthusiasts up to date with topical automotive news and lifestyle content. Our writers live and breathe automotive, taking the guess work out of car repairs with how-to content that helps owners get back on the road and keep driving.

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