In addition to our annual Automobile of the Year distinction, in 1991 we began recognizing innovation with an award called Technology of the Year. The accolade acknowledges an automotive technology that has already changed the new-car landscape, or one that will soon have a broader impact on the auto industry. Sometimes our Technology of the Year has been a feature available on mass-market cars for some time; other years, it endorses a nascent innovation that could have wide-ranging implications.
As we prepare to announce our 2013 Technology of the Year, we decided to look back at features, technologies, and ideas that have previously earned the award.
1991: Porsche Tiptronic
Though essentially just an enhanced version of a normal automatic transmission, the Tiptronic that debuted on the Porsche 911 Carrera 2 would prove to be a great innovation for sports cars. In addition to the usual PRND3 layout, the Tiptronic had a special gate allowing the driver to select gears manually. It combined the best virtues of traditional manual and torque-converter automatic transmissions into one seamless package.
"Combine this versatility with the smooth, quiet, and fast operation that the Tiptronic transmission offers, and it adds up to an automatic that is well-matched to the brawny personality of the 911 Carrera 2. With plans afoot to incorporate it into the successor of the 944, the Tiptronic looks set to become the automatic of the future." -- Barry Winfield
1992: General Motors ABS VI Brakes
The control and safety benefits of anti-lock brakes were well known by 1992, and those benefits became available to even more drivers when General Motors made its ABS VI system available as standard on a long list of affordable cars that included the Regal, Lumina, Grand Prix, Cavalier, Corsica, Beretta, Skylark, Achieva, and Grand Am.
"When the GM Automotive Components Group developed a reasonably low-cost anti-lock brake system for smaller cars, fitting it to 1991 Pontiac Grand Am SE and Saturn models, we applauded. When it found its way onto various 1992 GM cars as standard equipment, we felt this step was worthy of our Technology of the Year award." -- BW
1993: Saturn Traction Control
When we picked awards for 1993, traction control was already available on at least 40 new cars in America. Yet most of those vehicles were high-priced luxury machines or sports cars, until General Motors' budget brand Saturn managed to create a cheap traction-control system that cost the consumer as little as $50.
"What is significant about Saturn's system is its elegant simplicity; it uses existing off-the-shelf parts to create a traction control system that is inexpensive enough for lower-priced cars… Understanding drivers' needs, Saturn has combined existing control hardware and technology in a unique way, in the process introducing an important safety innovation to mid- and low-price cars." -- Kevin Clemens
1994: Saab Trionic Engine Management
Saab had experimented with using electronics to control car engines since the 1970s, including with its respected Automatic Performance Control system in the 1980s that electronically managed turbocharger boost. But it wasn't until the company was purchased by General Motors in 1989 that Saab had access to the powerful silicon chips necessary to control fuel injection, ignition timing, and turbo boost at the same time.
"They called it Trionic, for its three-pronged approach to controlling fuel, ignition, and boost with ionic combustion sensing. The 32-bit microprocessor, capable of two million calculations per second, is the most power computer ever placed in a production car. 'It's more powerful than the computers used in the Apollo capsule on the moon,' says [Saab engine development director Per] Gillbrand." -- KC
1995: Mazda Miller-Cycle Engine
American inventor Ralph H. Miller came up with a different method for internal-combustion engines to make power, and Mazda put that to use in a supercharged V-6 in the Millenia sedan. Miller-cycle engines keep the intake valves open for longer, and use a supercharger to force more air into the cylinder. The result is more power and torque, with less fuel consumption.
"In the Miller cycle, the compression stroke is shorter than the power-producing expansion stroke… Our experience with our Four Seasons Millenia confirms that its 2.3-liter V-6 gives the performance you would expect from a much larger V-6 engine while returning a level of fuel efficiency in keeping with its small displacement." -- KC
1996: Honda Continuously Variable Transmission
A Dutch truck manufacturer named DAF first commercialized the continuously variable transmission in 1958, and although several manufacturers had tried their hand at CVTs and later abandoned the idea, by 1996 Honda seemed to have struck a solution. The company introduced a new CVT in the special high-efficiency Civic HX, which was then EPA-rated at 35/39 mpg (city/highway) -- although modern EPA testing would rate the car at 30/35 mpg.
"Honda says it went the CVT route to combine the system's smooth stepless shifting with the performance and fuel economy associated with a manual transmission… By dusting off a discarded concept and revitalizing it with electronic control, the engineers at Honda have created another practical option in the technology of locomotion." -- KC
Seatbelts weren't new in 1997 -- Volvo introduced the first three-point belt in 1959 -- but we decided to recognize the safety feature for its continued ability to save lives. Even though airbags had recently become standard in new cars, data still showed that seatbelts saved more lives.
"Why have we chosen something as ordinary as the seatbelt as our Technology of the Year? Because nothing else, not air bags nor side-impact beams nor crush zones nor a host of other safety technologies, has made as much difference as those simple seatbelts… They keep on saving lives, and they have been doing so for almost half a century." -- KC
1998: Chevrolet LS1 5.7-liter V-8 Engine
The LS1 small-block V-8 debuted in the 1998 Chevrolet Corvette, as well as the Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. Its laundry list of innovations included all-aluminum construction, a new engine-management computer, a composite intake manifold, and Chevrolet's first drive-by-wire throttle.
"Compared with the previous-generation LT-1, [the LS1] has 15 percent more power and five percent more torque, weighs 12 percent less, and has a 12 percent improvement in fuel economy… More important for customers, its delivery of power and performance seems smooth and effortless." -- KC
1999: Jeep Grand Cherokee Quadra-Drive
The 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee bucked the trend of other contemporary SUVs and didn't rely simply on an electronic traction-control system for off-roading. Instead, Jeep developing an advanced four-wheel-drive system called Quadra-Drive that used complex oil pumps and clutch packs to maintain traction even on loose terrain.
"What is significant is that Quadra-Drive allows a limited-slip axle at the front and rear on dry, wet, and muddy surfaces… Jeep's system produces none of the kickback or loss of steering usually associated with a locking front axle… The Grand Cherokee inspires incredible confidence in the most extreme off-road conditions." -- KC
2000: Honda Insight IMA Hybrid Powertrain
After a long list of highly efficient small cars, Honda introduced the two-door Insight hybrid. Beneath the quirky body was a 1.0-liter three-cylinder gas engine with 67 horsepower and 66 lb-ft of torque, and a supplemental electric motor rated for just 6 hp and 25 lb-ft.
"Because the company had gasoline-engine technology that already came close to meeting zero-emissions standards, Honda chose to build a highly efficient gasoline engine and augment its performance with an integrated electric motor… With a drag coefficient of 0.25, low-rolling-resistance tires, and a curb weight of 1887 pounds, the Insight is capable of 61 mpg on the EPA city cycle and 70 mph on the highway." -- KC
2001: Mercedes-Benz Active Body Control
Every modern automobile has a suspension, and engineers are usually forced to choose between firm springs and dampers that maximize grip, or soft ones that increase ride comfort at the expense of traction. Mercedes-Benz, however, came up with a system called Active Body Control that automatically adjusted suspension response to keep the car level and comfortable at all times. It was introduced as standard on the CL-Class, S600, and S55 AMG, and as an option on the S430 and S500.
"Conventional suspension systems rely on substantial body movements to move oil through dampers and compress the springs. The power of ABC comes from its ability to detect the slightest steering wheel and body movements on entry to a corner and to anticipate what corrections will need to be made at each wheel before any large body motions occur. It works amazingly well." -- KC
2002: Audi Multitronic CVT
Audi didn't invent the continuously variable transmission, but the company's Multitronic unit was smoother, more efficient, and could handle more power than older transmissions from competitors. It debuted on the 2002 Audi A4 and A6, providing smoother acceleration and passing.
"Multitronic's simplicity and use of magnesium instead of aluminum for its housings yield a 33-pound weight savings over Audi's five-speed automatic… According to factory figures, Multitronic beats the six-speed manual's quarter-mile time by 0.3 second. The loss of fuel economy is 2 mpg, comparable to the efficiency penalty inflicted by Audi's five-speed automatic." -- Don Sherman
2003: Delphi Damper With MagneRide System
While fully active suspension systems like the aforementioned Active Body Control are great, their complexity and cost can be prohibitive. That's why General Motors and Delphi worked to develop magnetorheological shock absorbers, which use magnetic fields to alter suspension firmness based on computer inputs. The system was launched on the 2002 Cadillac Seville STS, and was later offered on the Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac XLR, as well as countless other General Motors vehicles.
"Total system response is less than fifteen milliseconds, which means the computer can specify one level of damping as the wheel moves up and over a bump and a markedly different setting for the ride down. At 60 mph, damping can be changed at all four wheels every foot of travel." -- DS
2004: BMW Active Steering
BMW's Active Steering system uses a clever planetary gearbox on the steering shaft that is computer controlled to vary how quickly the front wheels respond to steering-wheel input. That means the car can offer light, quick steering at low speeds, while maintain a firm and slow ratio for better high-speed stability.
"At moderate speeds, a quick steering ratio is desirable to keep form banging elbows or shuffling the wheel hand-to-hand around a 90-degree corner. The problem is that ultrafast ratios make the car twitchy when you're cruising 10 mph over the limit. Sneeze, and you're in the ditch. The solution to the dilemma is called Active Steering, an integral part of the 2004 BMW 5-series Sport package." -- DS
2005: Audi DSG Dual-Clutch Transmission
Dual-clutch transmissions are by now so familiar and well-understood that they're even showing up in compact cars like the Ford Focus. But in 2005, Audi's Direct-Shift Gearbox marked a drastic change in the transmission world by offering an excellent combination -- and alternative to -- traditional manuals and automatics. It debuted here in the Audi TT V-6 Quattro, and derivations subsequently appeared in the Audi A3, Volkswagen Golf, the Bugatti Veyron, and the 2008 Porsche range.
"DSG combines the best features of manual and automatic transmissions… As in automatics, there's no interruption in the flow of torque during full-throttle upshifts. As in manuals, the clutches are both disengaged to rev the engine for smooth downshifts. Efficiency losses inherent to an automatic's torque convertible and multiple open clutches are eliminated."
2006: BMW 3.0-Liter N52 Engine
BMW used aluminum and magnesium to trim weight from its venerable 3.0-liter inline-six engine, and the straight-six remained one of our favorite engines on the market. With 215 hp in the 325i or 255 hp in the 330i, we liked the engine enough to name the 2006 BMW 3-Series in which it debuted our Automobile of the Year.
"BMW's astute materials selection for the new 3-series' 3.0-liter in-line six achieved a 24 percent weight reduction over the outgoing engine… Saving twenty-two pounds while increasing peak output by 30 hp with no mileage loss earns BMW's twelfth-generation I-6 engine Automobile Magazine's 2006 Technology of the Year award." -- DS
2007: Electronic Stability Control
Staffers' experiences at the edges of traction taught us the benefits of electronic stability control. Launched by BMW and Mercedes-Benz in 1996, the system subsequently spread to cover almost all new models -- especially SUVs, for which ESC had the great benefit of preventing rollover accidents. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recognized ESC as having the capability to save 10,000 lives annually, which led to the technology becoming required by law for all 2012 model-year vehicles.
"What manufacturers call ESP, PSM, DSC, and a dozen other names, we consider the greatest bacon saver since cars got brakes… Sensors monitor the driver's intended path, lateral acceleration, and yaw rate. When tires begin slipping, ESC automatically swings into action with nothing required of the driver beyond steady hands on the steering wheel." -- DS
General Motors' Two-Mode hybrid system allowed the giant GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Suburban to achieve as much as 20 mpg in the city, thanks to a complex system that involved two 80-hp electric motors, a 6.0-liter V-8 engine, and multiple clutch packs. We called it the biggest leap forward in hybrid propulsion since the Toyota Prius.
"Because Two-Mode is a second-generation approach conceived by transmission experts instead of engine specialists, gasoline and electric power sources are more ingeniously combined with fixed and variable gear ratios to achieve higher efficiency over a broader range. Alterations to the vehicle--weight savings from aluminum body panels and wheels, elimination of the spare wheel and tire, and subtle aerodynamic tweaks--also contribute to heightened efficiency."
Direct fuel injection was finally gaining traction in mainstream cars by 2009. The innovation, which shoots fuel into engine cylinders at extremely high pressures, brought with it the benefits of more precise fuel metering, for better efficiency and power, as well as reduced combustion temperatures that allowed for higher combustion ratios.
"Delivering fuel to the fire was every early engine designer's worst headache. After more than a century of these headaches, an ideal means of getting fuel to the fire is finally gaining production applications. Direct injection-squirting pressurized fuel straight into each cylinder-is the key to keeping internal-combustion engines relevant in the future."
Switching from nickel-metal hydride to lithium-ion batteries meant great strides in portable energy for cell phones, laptops, power tools, and finally cars. Despite high prices and vulnerability to overheating, lithium-ion batteries paved the way for more efficient hybrids, as well as electric cars that were feasible in the real world.
"Enter the Li-ion battery -- the great enabler for advanced hybrids and pioneering electrics. Li-ion batteries are significantly smaller and lighter than NiMH batteries, and they can be recharged overnight in homes equipped with suitable wiring… A dozen or so manufacturers are now preparing to mass-produce Li-ion batteries for automotive use." -- DS
Despite plenty of skeptics both then and now, we recognized the maturity and mainstream availability of electric propulsion. Hybrid cars had already proven their worth, and engineers had already wrung almost every drop of fuel efficiency out of traditional internal-combustion cars. Now electric cars were available in the real world, and it seemed like they were ready for primetime.
"Three electrically driven cars from major manufacturers are on the U.S. market today, and others are on the show circuit or under development for future introduction. In other words, the barrier blocking this alternative to internal combustion has been lifted… You should have seen this coming. We celebrated hybrids as our Tech of the Year in 2000 and 2008. Last year, lithium-ion batteries earned the prize." -- DS
Our award last year was not for one technology, but for the winning combination of three technologies. Turbocharging, direct fuel injection, and variable valve timing all provided individual benefits, but combining all three into one engine made for huge strides in both horsepower and fuel efficiency. That paved the way for smaller, more efficient engines that made just as much power as older, larger engines -- while consuming less fuel.
"The components work like a barstool with three legs: remove one leg and you have a pretty lousy stool… Today, fuel economy is rising as our cars keep getting faster and faster. It's win/win, which is why the Turbo Tech Trifecta is a worthy award winner." -- Jason Cammisa