While it’s often easy to trace the origin of automotive innovations back to a few daredevil individuals, some of the most novel inventions sewn into our cars have more obscure roots.
The cars we drive today were influenced by these pioneers
Take, for instance, pioneering aviator Gabriel Voisin, whose invention of an automatic cadence braking system for aircraft landing gear evolved into the ABS that brings us all safely to a halt. Or US Airforce Colonel John Stapp whose self-experimentation on the human body’s ability to withstand G-forces regularly saw him riding a rocket-powered sledge at 1000 km/h, then decelerating in a matter of seconds – an action that would liquify lesser humans’ brains – in a bid to bring the three-point safety belt to common use in cars. So, it’s no surprise cruise control is largely attributed to a blind inventor and his lawyer’s unco-ordinated pedal foot.
Despite being blinded in an accident at the age of five, Ralph Teetor became a successful engineer. Folklore says the origin of cruise control stems from several car rides with his lawyer, Harry Lyndsay, who would speed up when talking and slow down when listening to Teetor.
This rocking motion so irritated Teetor he set about inventing a speed-control device. Patented in 1950, the “Speedostat” system incorporated a dash-mounted speed selector connected to the engine’s driveshaft. As the driver reached the set speed, a governor mechanism would activate a vacuum-driven piston pushing back against the throttle pedal.
A few years later, Teetor would integrate an electromagnetic motor that would further modulate the accelerator pedal, locking in the driver’s desired speed until the brake pedal was depressed to create the cruise-control system we recognise today. After repeatedly petitioning for the incorporation of his system as standard on all cars, Teetor’s vision was fullled by Chrysler, which offered a dial-operated system “Auto-pilot” as an option on the 1958 Imperial. Just two years later, this innovation would become a common feature on a number of Cadillac models, this time wearing the “Cruise Control” moniker by which all speed control systems are known to this day.
THEY ALSO PAVED THE WAY
The 1904 Wilson-Pilcher featured a camshaft-mounted engine-speed governor which could be set to advance spark ignition with increasing engine speed. Operated by a foot pedal, it became an early form of cruise control.
This sedan was the first to incorporate a lidar (light detection and ranging) laser array controlling vehicle speed. The “Preview Distance Control” system didn’t operate the brakes, rather regulating accelerator and transmission inputs.
MERCEDES-BENZ S-CLASS W220
Distronic Plus was the first to regulate cruising speed by controlling brake function. It also featured a radar sensor to circumvent visual obscurations such as dust and fog that inhibited the effectiveness of visually dependent lidar systems.
The Forester was the first car to be offered with an adaptive cruise-control system using a dual colour-camera array (its predecessor was black and white) instead of the more conventional radar and lidar systems.