The 5 Greatest Failures in Car Tech
The 100-plus-year history of the automobile is checkered with failed technologies. Some of these features and functions are so bad that car manufacturers would rather you not recall them at all.
To suss out the most spectacular tech mistakes of yesteryear, we spoke to car experts about their all-time favorites. The five biggest offenders have one thing in common: Car makers simply don’t make them like this anymore and for good reason.
1. The First Talking Car
While today’s navigation systems routinely bark directions at us, the first “talking” cars actually came out more than 20 years ago. The problem: 1980s technology limited these commands — which were stored and played using a miniature record and turntable — to an extremely small stash of pre-recorded messages.
“It started with the 1981 Datsun 810 Maxima, which had six phrases, including such hits as ‘Lights Are On’ and ‘Door is Open’,” says Popular Mechanics senior tech editor, Glenn Derene. “I remember shopping for a vehicle with my dad in the early ’80s when we checked out the Maxima. The first time you hear the car talk, it’s a fascinating piece of technology, but by the second time, it’s already annoying. We bought a Toyota.”
But Datsun wasn’t alone in this misstep. Chrysler and Ford had their own version of the talking car. In 1983, a Chrysler spokesperson even told a reporter at the Modesto Bee that user reviews of the feature were mixed at best. “Quite frankly, it’s 50-50. Some people love and some hate it,” he said. “That’s why we came up with the cutoff switch.”
We’d love to blame Knight Rider for this tech flop, but the show didn’t air until 1982.
2. The Nuclear-Powered Car
In 1958, Ford released a concept for a strange little vehicle called the Nucleon. Instead of an internal-combustion engine, the vehicle was supposed to be powered on a small nuclear reactor stashed in the rear. As Sid Ramnarace, a legendary former Ford designer who now designs products for the kitchenware company Savora put it: “What could go wrong there?” We can think of a few things.
These days, gamers may recognize the Nucleon as the inspiration for many of the cars in the Fallout game series’ post-apocalyptic Cityscapes.
3. The Automatic Shoulder Belt
Remember those seat belts that would automatically close on you (and your windpipe) when the door shut? Yeah, we’ve tried to block them out as well. “One of the worst technologies ever was the ‘automatic shoulder belt’, which, in some cases, had a negative effect,” says Dan Bedore, Nissan’s director of communications. “People who normally used their safety belts had to have a redundant, expensive, and awkward system. And some people didn’t bother to fasten the manual lap belt because they were given a false sense of security. The basic safety belt is the most important and effective safety technology in a vehicle. For a few years, in a few applications, it became a Rube Goldberg machine.”
The first consumer car to feature an automatic seat belt was the 1975 Volkswagon Rabbit, and the first one to have it as a standard feature was the 1981 Toyota Cressida. But the real surge came around 1990, when auto manufacturers were required to give all their cars either automatic seat belts or more-expensive driver’s-side airbags. In 1995, airbags became mandatory, and the silly robotic seat belt pretty much disappeared overnight.
4. The Turbine-Powered Car
How many times have you looked at an airplane and thought: ‘I wish my car had a jet engine in it?’ Somebody at Chrysler thought the same thing because in 1962, the company released the Chrysler Turbine. It was the first (and only) gas-turbine-powered production car.
“Turbine power was unequivocally cooler than conventional internal combustion engines,” says Basem Wasef, an auto writer and author of Legendary Race Cars. “It idled at 22,000 rpm, sounded like a jet engine, had one fifth the moving parts as a traditional piston power plant, and required no warm-up time.”
But the tech didn’t catch on. Chrysler produced just fifty five Turbines, which includes a set of five prototypes. Like the GM EV1 — an early attempt at mass-producing an electric car, — most were rounded up and destroyed. Today, just nine are known to exist in museums and private collections, and only three are thought to have operating engines. Predictably, they’re worth a fortune.
5. The Air Grabber Hood
The gimmick: Flip a switch on your 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner, and a hood scoop would rise up, complete with gnarly shark teeth painted on the side. “As a drag-racing intimidation tactic, I think it was pretty cool. I can imagine if you saw a Plymouth with the Air Grabber raised, you knew the guy next to you had a serious motor,” says Ben Stewart, Popular Mechanics’ West coast editor.
But as fast and furious as the Air Grabber hood may have been, it simply never caught on. “It was probably a victim of the early ’70s oil crisis,” Stewart adds. “Muscle cars became strangled by the new emissions equipment and automakers couldn’t make cars clean and quick like they do today. The tech just wasn’t there yet. So as these cars became defanged the Air Grabber disappeared.”