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A nuclear powered car and 9 other car innovations that never caught on

The 1958 Ford Nucleon, which never got beyond a small-scale model. — Ford handout
The 1958 Ford Nucleon, which never got beyond a small-scale model. — Ford handout

JIL MCINTOSH

Right from the very beginning, the auto industry turned the impossible into reality. A vehicle that could move by itself — could it get any better than that?

Of course it did, and most of the innovations were good ideas, but every now and again, something looked better on the drawing board than it did on a car. We’ve got 10 cool innovations that sounded good but never made the cut.

Audi Procon-ten

Other companies were putting airbags in their vehicles, but Audi had to be different, and in 1986 unveiled its Procon-ten, for Programmed Contraction Tension. Airbags prevented the driver from smashing into the steering wheel, and so Audi would take the wheel out of the way.

The system used cables that connected the engine to the steering column and seatbelt mounting points. In a front-end collision, the cables tightened, pulling the wheel forward and tightening the seatbelts. It seemed to work well, but its cost, weight, and airbags becoming mandatory doomed it. When the new models were announced in 1994, Procon-ten was gone.

Automatic Seatbelts

Automatic seatbelt on a 1989 Chrysler Conquest. — Jil McIntosh
Automatic seatbelt on a 1989 Chrysler Conquest. — Jil McIntosh

 

Seatbelts save lives, but only if the occupants wear them — and in the 1980s, a lot of people did not, and so automakers introduced an automatic version.

The shoulder belt was mounted on a little motorized mouse that ran on a track above the front window. You slid under it when you got in; the mouse then moved back to the B-pillar, which drew the belt across the chest. The driver then had to fasten the lap belt. Most people disliked them, and not everyone fastened the lap belt, which made everything pointless. The belts only lasted a couple of years.

Bose Electromagnetic Suspension

In 2004, Bose installed an electromagnetic suspension for testing in a Lexus LS 400 sedan. — Screen grab
In 2004, Bose installed an electromagnetic suspension for testing in a Lexus LS 400 sedan. — Screen grab

 

Bose is known for the stereos it puts in cars, but briefly, it also put components under them. In 2004, the company unveiled a suspension that used a linear electromagnetic motor on each wheel, instead of a shock and spring. It was installed for testing in a Lexus LS 400 sedan.

On any bumps, or when cornering or braking, the motors instantly extended or retracted. No matter how rough the road, the car remained perfectly level. It could even leap over a small obstacle – and with perfect poise.

The company said it would be on the market within five years, but it was too expensive and heavy for any automakers to bite. Bose ended up adapting it to tractor-trailer seats. In 2017 it sold the suspension design to tech company ClearMotion, which promised it on a “low-volume vehicle” in 2019 – but we’re still waiting.

Volvo Heartbeat Sensor

Volvo’s personal car communicator introduced for 2006. —  Volvo
Volvo’s personal car communicator introduced for 2006. — Volvo

 

Criminals are always coming up with new ways to do the wrong thing, and one of them was to hide in a vehicle’s back seat and attack the driver when she got in. That was one problem Volvo tried to solve with its PCC, for Personal Car Communicator, introduced in 2006.

The system included a sensor that detected the vibration of a heartbeat, and when you got close to the car, the key fob beeped a warning that someone was inside. It also warned if someone locked the car but left a child or pet forgotten inside. PCC was offered as an option for a couple of years, but never really caught on.

PCC started as part of a concept safety car project, and the heartbeat sensor was just the beginning. The plan was to later add fingerprint recognition, communication with personal computers, and personal health information, which it would forward to first responders in a crash. The fob would also download navigation information: if you stopped for lunch on a trip, it would tell you when to get back on the road so you wouldn’t be late to your destination.

Flashing Brake Lights

Mercedes-Benz adaptive brake lights. — Mercedes-Benz
Mercedes-Benz adaptive brake lights. — Mercedes-Benz

 

Drivers notice flashing lights, and using that logic, some European automakers came out with adaptive brake lights that flashed when they came on. But they couldn’t be sold in Canada or the U.S., which had rules against brake lights that flashed, or that got brighter if you stepped harder on the pedal.

In 2006, Mercedes-Benz was given permission to test its flashing lights on American roads for two years. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also studied the lights and released its findings in 2009. It found that reaction time didn’t change significantly between regular lights, flashing ones, or flashing lights that got brighter. Drivers also tended to hit their brakes when lights in an adjacent lane flashed and got confused when cars with flashing lights turned a corner in front of them. The rules were not changed.

GM Quadrasteer

Several vehicles have offered four-wheel steering, mostly on sports cars to improve higher-speed handling. But in 2002, GM put it on a truck. Quadrasteer improved stability above 72 km/h, but its real purpose was to increase manoeuvrability at lower speeds. The rear wheels could turn up to 15 degrees opposite to the front ones, giving the GMC Sierra Denali a turning radius of just 11.3 metres – about one-third tighter than a Sierra without it.

A steer-by-wire system on the rear axle controlled it. It added 129 kilograms, but GM beefed up the rear end, giving Quadrasteer trucks more towing capacity. Optional on full-size pickups and SUVs, it initially cost as much as US$6,000. But few buyers went for it even after that dropped closer to US$1,000, and it was gone after 2005.

Electronic Voice Alert

Warning chimes seemed oh-so-yesterday in the 1980s, and so Chrysler and Nissan decided their vehicles would talk. If you left your lights on, forgot your keys, or didn’t fasten your seatbelt, among other things, you’d get a spoken scolding.

Chrysler’s system arrived in 1983. A professional announcer recorded 11 warnings, which were digitized and dispensed by a small computer behind the glovebox. After some customers complained (I owned a car that had it, and it was annoying), a shutoff switch was added the following year.

Nissan’s system, introduced a couple of years earlier, was even cooler. Called the Voice Warning System, it initially used a miniature record player before switching to a computer chip. The tiny record had six grooves, one for each message. Once the sensors figured out which one to play, the needle dropped into the right one.

BMW Z1 Doors

The BMW Z1’s doors slid into the sills with an electric motor. — BMW
The BMW Z1’s doors slid into the sills with an electric motor. — BMW

 

There are doors that lift up, that latch at the front, or slide backwards — but leave it to BMW to make a door that goes down. That was the Z1, made from 1988 to 1991.

The Z1 was a research project on alternative materials — its body panels were plastic – but when a magazine writer spotted it on a test-drive, there was enough interest to put it into production. The car had very tall sills, and a motor-and-belt system rolled the doors down into them, even when the car was moving.

The car’s high price and less-than-sporty performance killed it after just 8,000 were made. The disappearing doors weren’t specifically to blame, but then, no other automaker has replicated them, either.

In-Car Record Players

Chrysler Highway Hi-Fi —FCA
Chrysler Highway Hi-Fi —FCA

 

If you were driving back in the day, you only got to hear your favourite song if the radio station happened to play it. And so, in the mid-1950s, the in-car record player arrived.

Chrysler was first with its 1956 Highway Hi-Fi. You still might not get your favourite, though, because the system used unique seven-inch platters issued by Columbia Records, featuring only its artists. It was later modified to accept other records, but it was an expensive option and only lasted two years.

The automaker tried again with a cheaper version in 1960, but it didn’t last either. The earlier systems could skip over bumpy roads; the later ones did not, but the needle pressed so firmly that the records quickly wore out. The in-car player’s second time around didn’t last much longer than the first.

Nuclear-Powered Car

The 1958 Ford Nucleon, which never got beyond a small-scale model. — Ford handout
The 1958 Ford Nucleon, which never got beyond a small-scale model. — Ford handout

 

In the 1950s, tourists flocked to the desert to watch the U.S. military test its atomic bombs. The Atomic Age spawned futuristic architecture, furniture, and fashion styling, so why not a car? And so Ford dreamed up the Nucleon.

It only ever got as far as a 3/8 model, and it was basically a styling exercise at that. Ford didn’t explain who could create a miniature nuclear reactor, or how the occupants would be protected from it. But it did estimate a range of about 8,000 kilometres, and you’d stop at a modern service station to have the spent cores swapped with new ones. Ultimately, Ford’s atomic car bombed.

Copyright Postmedia Network, 2020

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