Monday, September 1, 2008

The Germans Made it Better

In L.A., we sure love our German cars. BMWs, Porsches and Mercedes are par for the course. We know some of the Fans might be new to the German marques and might be tempted to brag about some of the great technology they didn’t have in their Civic and what not, but let your Pap help you get your ego in check before you embarrass yourself and are asked to get to the back of the line at The Hometown Buffet. Some of the wonderful technology in Mercedes, BMWs and Porsches are indeed wonderful, but they were not necessarily the first to adopt such technologies. The following automotive technologies first debuted on American cars, failed and was later brought back and popularized by the Germans.

Before the 1986 Mercedes S-Class debuted as the first car with standard airbags, it was 1974 when GM first introduced their “Air Cushion Restraint System.” These early airbags were offered as an option on Buicks, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, with the ’74 Oldsmobile Toronado as the very first production car to have “airbags.” Problems arose when airbags were thought of as an alternative to using seat belts. Airbags in fact did not provide the same protection from head-on accidents as seat belts, and after several deaths these primitive airbags, they were discontinued. The airbag was resurrected in the early 80s by the almighty Mercedes, this time not as replacement for seat belts, but as a supplemental restraint system (SRS, an acronym that appears in all cars today).

In 2002, the BMW 7-series debut iDrive, which is essentially the relocation of many car functions such as climate control, radio and more into an LCD screen controlled by software, and thereby eliminating the vast number of buttons typically crowding the console and dash. But it was in 1986 when we first saw this type of button-eliminating, screen-menu access device on the Buick Riviera. It was called the Electronic Control Center (ECC), which featured a touch screen computer interface to control radio, climate control and provided diagnostic access to the vehicle. It also featured a date reminder and trip computer…much like what iDrive does today! By today’s standards, the screen on a microwave looks better and that annoying beep each time you pressed a button would drive your Pap insane. Although it only lasted two years on the Buick, it was the start of something different. Today, Audi has their MMI and Mercedes has their COMAND but dare we say it was all thanks to the Buick ECC?

As far back as the early 50s, an automatic headlamp option called the Autronic Eye was available on certain GM cars. A periscope-like sensor sitting atop the dashboard sensed surrounding light conditions and from oncoming traffic. It would adjust between high and low beams according to those conditions. The problem was an erratic flickering between high and low beams from the slightest change in light, such as from street lamps. By the late 50s, the name Autronic Eye was dropped, but the system was tweaked and reintroduced as Guidematic Headlamps – a self-dimming headlamp system that had addition of a driver-adjustable sensitivity switch. Unfortunately, lingering memories of the Autronic Eye made buyers shy away from the Guidematic Headlamps and so they were never popular. By the mid-60s, Guidematic was discontinued from all GM brands except Cadillac, which offered the option until the late 80s.

Today, certain Mercedes come with the Intelligent Light System, which boasts a feature that brightens the headlights at highway speeds; illuminates a wider area on dark country roads and turns the headlights in the direction of the steering wheel to illuminate curves. BMW has High Beam Assistant and Adaptive Headlights which does the same. High Beam Assistant automatically switches from low to high beams when the road is dark and back to low beam when oncoming traffic approaches. Adaptive Headlights turn the headlights in the direction of the steering wheel to illuminate curves. Yes, all done seamlessly and without an erratic flickering or a silly-looking periscope sensor.

Back in the mid 80s, Nissan (okay, not American, but follow along anyway) introduced an active suspension on certain Nissan and Infiniti cars. Called Sonar Suspension, a sensor “read” the road surface and adjusted the shock dampening accordingly. The system also allowed for two driver-selectable settings – a soft or firm ride at the touch of a button. Available until 1992, Nissan’s system was not well-received, as neither of the two available settings were appropriate. In “comfort” mode, the car was too springy; in “sport” mode, it was too jittery, and there was no middle setting.

Today, Porsche has PASM and Mercedes has Airmatic, both received with high acclaim since their introduction several years ago. A Porsche with PASM dailed on comfort mode actually gives the car a more relaxed ride, with the ability to instantaneously self-engage into sport mode and stiffen up should sensors detect a sudden aggressive maneuver or turn. Alternatively, the driver can manually select “sport” mode, and the car is immediately transformed into a track-ready sports car. The active suspension on certain Mercedes cars is called Airmatic, which in addition to variable shock dampening, also maintains vehicle height depending on load, and slightly lowers the car at high speeds for improved aerodynamics and handling. And in typical Mercedes fashion, Airmatic ingeniously manages to iron out road imperfections while maintaining road feel. And while Airmatic doesn’t sound any less hokey than Sonar Suspension, at least it does the job right.

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