The Toyota Prius has been hailed for its hybrid technology, but did you know that gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles were traveling European roads more than a century ago?
And that navigation system you used to avoid traffic this morning? That's hardly a new idea, either. In fact, a slew of features on today's vehicles have appeared previously; but because of cost, reliability and other issues, they never really caught on with car buyers before.
Here are seven innovations that were ahead of their time.
1. Hybrid vehicles
As far back as the late 1890s, engineers had ideas about uniting a gasoline engine with an electric motor. In 1899, 21-year-old Ferdinand Porsche built a gasoline-electric hybrid automobile.
At the time, Porsche was an engineer for Lohner Carriage Co. in Vienna, Austria. He built a car with electric motors in the hubs and two 2.5-hp gasoline engines that powered a generator. The electricity from the generator charged the batteries or went directly to the wheel hub motors.
The Lohner-Porsche eliminated the transmission and driveshaft. According to Mercedes-Benz, Porsche - who went to work for Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (which later became Mercedes) - called his creation the Mixte. About 300 of the cars were built.
Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft liked Porsche's wheel hub motor concept so much that it produced wheel hub motors "in large numbers," according to Mercedes. In 1906 Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft began producing the Mercedes-Mixte, which combined 5-hp wheel hub motors and a 28-hp gasoline engine. But the cars were costly and, as a result, a bit of a rarity.
Hybrids still are more costly than gasoline-powered vehicles. But against the backdrop of high fuel prices and a growing green movement, the technology is the hottest in the auto industry. Last year, hybrid sales in the United States were 176,507, up from about 80,000 in 2004.
Wheel hub motors are getting a second look, too. In 2003, General Motors used wheel hub motors with the Autonomy fuel cell vehicle, which also does not have a transmission or driveshaft.
2. Navigation systems
In August 1981, Honda dealers in Japan offered what Honda claims was the first in-car navigation system. It was based on a gyroscope and a sensor that could follow a route on a map and point out when it was time to turn. This was before the days of global positioning satellite technology and in-car map storage on DVDs.
In North America, Oldsmobile became the first domestic automaker to offer an in-car navigation system. It was called Guidestar and was available on the Eighty Eight in 1995. Guidestar used global positioning satellite technology along with sensors and on-board computer disc storage for street maps to calculate turn-by-turn directions. Guidestar was a $2,495 option.
The system was slow and difficult to read, and it could get confused. The shrill metallic voice that notified the driver of upcoming turns was not user-friendly.
In 2000, about 140,000 North American vehicles were equipped with navigation systems, according to CSM Worldwide Inc. That grew to about 750,000 systems last year, and the number is projected to balloon to almost 1.3 million by 2010.
3. Full active suspension systems
The laws of physics can't be defeated, but they can be counteracted. And that's what Nissan's Infiniti division tried in 1990 with the Q45a. This big car was the first production car with a computer-controlled, hydraulically operated suspension system that prevented the body from leaning in curves and diving during heavy braking.
Infiniti's Full Active Suspension System enabled the sedan to handle like a sports car, and it garnered critical praise from auto writers. But at $5,500, the option was not popular with car buyers.
The bulky and complex system was powered by a hydraulic pump that circulated as much as 16 quarts of fluid to each wheel at 1,500 pounds per square inch, according to Car and Driver magazine.
Today, suppliers such as ZF Friedrichshafen AG and Delphi Corp. have developed active suspension systems that do the same thing without the cost and complexity of that original Infiniti system. ZF uses electronically controlled solenoids on shock absorbers to keep the car's body from leaning in curves. Delphi's system uses shocks with magnetic fluid.
ZF's Continuous Damping Control System is a $500 option on the Opel Astra compact. Delphi's system is standard on several Cadillac nameplates and the Chevrolet Corvette.