From the Speedostat to Cruise Control: How Car Features Have Changed Over the Years

Everyone loves looking back at the good old days. Just like with movies and fashion trends, there’s a lot to be nostalgic about when it comes to car technology. Let’s take a walk back through memory lane and look back at how vehicle parts and systems have changed over the years. We asked you on Facebook to tell us which features you’d like to look back on, and here’s some of your top answers.

From the Speedostat to cruise control

The basis of modern automated driving technology can be traced back to the 50s. Ralph Teetor, a blind inventor, was responsible for creating a device that allowed drivers to partially automate driving speed.

His invention was initially called the Speedostat or “Stat”. Upon reaching the desired speed, the driver could maintain the same speed by holding the pedal and his foot would feel resistance as a warning if he decides to accelerate. A speed lock capability was added five years later in the form of an electromagnetic motor which maintained the dialed-in speed until the driver stepped on the brakes.

It was General Motor’s Cadillac division which gave the device the name “Cruise Control”. The enforcement of a national speed limit in the early 70s due to the embargo placed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on the US became the catalyst that propelled cruise control as a popular gas-saving tool.

An early version of cruise control was invented by Ralph Teetor who called it Speedostat or “Stat” until GM’s Cadillac division named it Cruise Control.

Automated speed management has come a long way since Teetor’s time. Today’s adaptive cruise control allows you to set a maximum speed and use sensors to detect surrounding traffic. This technology allows you to lock on to the car ahead and compute its speed in order to stay two to three seconds behind. It can even activate brake systems if you’re driving too close to the vehicle ahead.

From drum brakes to disc brakes

The drum brake is one of the earliest braking systems used in automobiles. Gottlieb Daimler came up with the idea of wrapping a cable around a drum and anchoring it to the vehicle chassis. One problem with early drum brakes were, the brakes would get unwound while going uphill, sending the vehicle rolling backwards.

The drum brake that became standard in cars was invented by Louis Renault. This type of braking system uses internal forces to generate friction and slow down the wheel. Inside its wheel cylinder are brake shoes that push against the inner walls to stop the rotation of the brake drum and wheel.

While drum brakes are still found on rear axles of some vehicles today, most modern cars have disc brakes installed. This type of braking system uses caliper fitted brake pads to grab and stop the spinning rotor. Disc brakes are considered more efficient, produce more stopping power, and dissipates heat easier than drum brakes.

From Positraction to electronic traction control systems

A vehicle’s traction control system prevents the wheels from over spinning while driving on slippery roads. This system is engaged when the wheels start to slip and need help grabbing onto the road. In the 60s, an older form of traction control was called a limited-slip rear differential or “Positraction.” It detected which wheel had the greatest traction and sends power to that wheel, minimizing the effect of the tire that’s slipping.

Electronic traction control systems today utilize sensors that measure the rotational speed of wheels to determine which are losing traction. Brakes are applied on the individual wheel to decrease slip by slowing it down. Some electronic traction control systems even reduce engine power to the slipping wheels.

Today’s electronic control systems utilize sensors that can measure the wheel’s rotational speed and determine which are losing traction.

From the Hydra-matic to electronic transmission controls

The Hydra-matic was the first hydraulic transmission system that paved the way for a fully clutchless transmission. Hydraulic transmissions systems use fluid and pressure in a sealed system to transfer power. The Hydra-matic was first offered as an option on Oldsmobiles in 1940 and featured four forward speeds with one reverse. It didn’t have a park setting, so the driver had to put the car in reverse and turn the engine off.

You’ll notice that automotive design is swiftly moving towards switching to electronic systems. While hydraulic transmission controls are still common today, they are mostly coupled with electric components. Electronic transmission control systems can monitor vehicle speed, throttle position, and can even track if the brake pedal is pressed. This system produces better fuel economy, reduced engine emissions, greater reliability, and better shift speed and handling.

From reflector to projector headlights

Reflector headlights have been standard since the invention of electric headlights. These consist of an encased light bulb surrounded by mirrors to illuminate the road. Before the 80s, sealed-beam headlights couldn’t even be removed from the casing to replace a busted bulb.

Today, projector headlight assemblies come with a replaceable bulb and a reflective component. But more than that, these are considered better at directing light where it’s needed. Light is focused using an elliptical-shaped reflector and projected in a beam pattern through a shutter on the headlight casing. This design allows light to be aimed at the road instead of blinding other drivers at night.

From padded dashboards to advanced vehicle safety systems

Crash safety features first became a fixture in vehicles in the 30s. This was a time when safety glass, seat belts, and padded dashboards were introduced in all Ford vehicles. Back then, bumpers were purely decorative— vehicles were fitted with flashy chrome pieces that offered no protection in the event of a crash. In the late 50s, Volvo introduced the three-point lap and shoulder seat belt, but it was only in the mid-80s that the first law was passed requiring all occupants to wear a seat belt inside the vehicle.

Today, our cars are equipped with advanced vehicle safety systems that help in reducing fatality and serious injury on the road. Supplemental restraint system or SRS airbags automatically disable when seat belts aren’t worn to prevent injury. Instead of hard metals intended to resist force, modern bumpers are made with thermoplastics meant to crumple and create crush zones that dissipate impact in slow-speed collisions.

Modern cars are equipped with advanced vehicle safety systems such as SRS airbags that automatically disable when seat belts aren’t worn.

Author: JC Whitney

JC Whitney is the largest and oldest catalog and Internet direct-to-consumer auto parts and accessories retailer in America. Since 1915, JC Whitney has been filling the needs of customers by providing the right part at the best price. You can always shop with confidence at

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