We have a DAB radio in our kitchen and I was watching my wife changing the station she was listening to using the remote control. To her the remote control is a bit of a waste of time as she keeps it on top of the radio, and doesn’t really value the function in life that it was designed for as she uses it so close to the radio she could simply use the buttons on the radio.
This got me thinking about modern innovations (accepting that remote controls connected by wires were around in the late 1930’s as well as the first wireless remote control) that have been designed to make our lives easier, save us time, make life safer, enhance our experiences, but have the potential to make us lazier and take away some of our ‘experiential’ enjoyment. It also got me thinking that whilst these innovations have their place in today's world not everyone wants to, or feels the need to use them, after all shouldn't well designed innovations work just fine the way they were designed, whether it was last year, the year before, ten years ago, 50 years ago and even 100 years ago?
I have spent all of my life exposed to the motor car, in one way or another. From an early age enjoying travelling in the vast array of cars that my father had the pleasure of driving in his professional life, such as BMW 2002’s and a CSL now and then, an early Audi quattro and one of my favourites an Audi 200 Turbo. In fact it was in this last car that I first learnt to drive at the age of 12 at Silverstone Circuit.
I ‘fell’ into the motor industry at an early age and held various positions culminating in managing a very successful manufacturer racing team in the British Touring Car Championship.
Now as a photographer I have the pleasure of photographing cars of all types. From classic cars in private collections to motor sport events and new cars for motor manufacturers. I’m certainly no expert when it comes to the motor car, but I know a bit.
So, after musing about my wife’s preference for using the remote control the way she does I thought I’d have a trawl through my image library and look at how innovation has changed the motor car over the years and whether it’s for the better, worse or just necessary in the world we live in. By no means a scientific study of this subject, there are numerous resources available online written by far more knowledgeable people than me – this is simply an illustrated journal of my observations and thoughts.
The engine - the heart of any motor car – has been fitted to road going vehicles since the end of the 18th century, which back then would have been powered by steam. The 19th century saw the development of the four-stroke petrol engine (Nikolaus Otto), the two-stroke petrol engine (Dugald Clerk) and the four-stroke diesel engine (Rudolf Diesel) along with hydrogen fuel cell and lead-acid battery alternatives.
Thanks to these early engineers much has changed today in the world of the motor car with the introduction of hybrid technology utilising regenerative braking, dual power and automatic start/stop. The future of the modern motor car is without doubt dependant on hybrid technology and many automotive manufactures are making huge gains in this area. Away from hybrid technology development by others goes into production of small and highly efficient turbocharged engines that deliver the same performance as normally aspirated engines but with a big reduction in fuel consumption and exhaust emissions.
The innovation that surrounds the way the modern motor car is propelled will benefit the environment in the long term and make cars cheaper to run – that cannot be in doubt. However, without hesitation, my most exhilarating driving experience in the last 12 months was in the passenger seat of a 1926 3-4½ Litre ‘Le Mans’ Bentley - it certainly made me appreciate those early engineering pioneers and how their efforts have influenced modern motoring as we know it.
The first motor cars were steered with a ‘tiller’ before the somewhat radical introduction of steering wheels on cars at the end on the 19th century. Long before the invention of the ECU (Electronic Control Unit) to automatically control how the engine performs the strength of air and fuel mixture along with ignition spark advance were set by the driver using a series of levers mounted in the centre of the steering wheel. Look at many of today’s steering wheels and you’ll see an array of buttons to control the radio, the telephone, the satellite navigation and even the note the exhaust sound makes.
Appreciating the safety benefits of these innovations I can’t help thinking that aesthetically they’re just not as visually pleasing as their predecessors. And whilst they are technological masterpieces in many cases, they just don’t 'feel' same!
Climb into the cockpit of some modern cars, turn the key in the ignition and the dashboard will light up akin to a scene from the flight-deck of the ‘Starship Enterprise’. No more needles gradually coming to life to show fuel level and engine temperature, or spinning round to show engine revs and speed – all of this is accomplished through the use of electronic displays. The driver has everything they need to know about the cars performance and settings right in their eye-line – even in some cases satellite navigation. HUD (Heads-Up Display) continues to evolve and within 5 years some are predicting that active glass will be capable of displaying hi-definition colour images. I still think a pair of imperious needles takes some beating!
The levels of comfort you can experience in the modern motor car are, in some cases, quite extraordinary. In most cases there is a button (or two) to control almost everything, including your seat position in 3 or even 4 directions, as well as warming your bum on those cold winter mornings and even give you a massage! And there is almost an endless choice of colours to finish the interior that can be chosen for your fine Nappa leather or Alcantara as well as inlays including walnut, aluminium and carbon to name but a few. I guess a lot hasn’t changed that much in this respect – levers, rocker switches and handles have simply been replaced by their electronic brothers.
Changing gear has evolved and yet it has also reverted for some manufacturers to being indirectly back on the steering column, reminiscent of the column shift levers fitted to early cars with paddle shift technology. Whether by way of a manually selected gear using a foot pedal clutch and the familiar H format gear lever or an automatic gearbox with motion selection determined by pre-selection the variety of location spins-off into other benefits. Automatic-transmission vehicles with knobs, push buttons or small levers, free up precious space in vehicle cabins for extra storage bins, smartphone cradles, bigger cupholders or multimedia controllers. The new, lightweight controls do the job because automotive engineers are increasingly getting rid of the nuts, bolts and cables that once were connected to the gear box and instead are designing transmissions that use electronic circuits, switches and relays to control the actual gear changes alongside the infamous ‘cruise control’.
The earliest headlamps were introduced on the motor car in the late 1880s and were powered by oil or acetylene, the latter being popular because of its ability to resist rain and wind. Electric headlamps were introduced some 18 years later but the filaments had a short life and it was difficult to produce small dynamos with a high enough power output.
Almost 50 years ago the Citroen DS championed directional lighting, meaning that two of the four headlamps turned in the direction of the steering wheel – a concept now developed and refined and widely seen in the modern car. The 1960’s also saw the introduction of the halogen headlamp and subsequently the first standard LED headlamps were introduced by Audi – based on the technology developed and used in their DRLs (daytime running lights). Today’s headlamps are digitally controlled and laser headlight technology features on some high-end cars. There is no doubt that the latest headlamp technology improves safety – now, talking safety, if only car designers could find a way of allowing the use of rear ‘high intensity’ fog-lights simply when they’re needed!
Many car manufacturers use the world of motor sport to test technology and translate it to their road going cars. Creating aerodynamically efficient designs bursting with the engineering that has been developed through hours of wind tunnel and ‘on-track’ testing in highly demanding conditions. One such example is the Audi 100 (C3) designed, over 30 years ago, to have an aerodynamic look, achieving a drag coefficient of just 0.30cd. Audi also innovated flush windows - a key area for aerodynamic drag - that has now been adopted by virtually all manufacturers. This breakthrough alone has helped manufacturers create increased aerodynamic efficiency resulting in better fuel economy.
Modern motorsport features many ‘driver-aids’ not only to increase safety but improve performance too. You have to admire those early pioneering racing drivers without whom the development of both performance and safety would not have evolved and progressed as it has to our benefit.
Innovation is a wonderful thing and I am a big fan. These images were created using digital cameras, this article was written on a computer with a touch-screen and my high-speed Internet connection enabled it to be on the World Wide Web within seconds of clicking a button using the stylus pen on my Wacom tablet.
Some find it difficult to embrace innovation and prefer things ‘the way they were’ (nostalgia can be wonderful - taking people back to a time or place that made them feel happy), some can appreciate both and some just prefer ‘the modern way’. I fall into the second group but am increasingly becoming aware of the history of design, especially where the motor car is concerned. Admiring those pioneering designers and inventors without whom we wouldn’t be in a position to enjoy the ‘easier’ and more ‘immediate’ life we have today. Long live the designers, inventors and innovators!
And the next time Mrs Dennis walks over to the radio in the kitchen and points the remote control at it from only a couple of inches away I’ll smile and wonder if the marketing people at Philco (they introduced the ‘Mystery Control’ radio remote control in the late 1930’s) would be raising their eyebrows and smiling wryly along with me, after all, innovation has been happening for years and not everyone needs what innovation delivers…
…Each to their own - and long live that!
(All images © Scott Dennis - no reproduction without prior consent)