Radio knobs are making a comeback, but lots of other features are headed to extinction.
Recently, Ford F made a surprising announcement: It is adding radio knobs to its hi-tech component control system MyFord Touch. That’s a retreat from cutting-edge to old technology — a man-bites-dog scenario you don’t often see in the auto business. And don’t expect to see it any more often in the future.
Here’s the background: In attempting to reduce driver distraction and get a jump on competitors, Ford had introduced a voice- and touch-screen system for audio, navigation, and other functions. But drivers found the new system confusing, and Consumer Reports issued a withering report on its functionality. So Ford decided to listen to popular concern and go backwards: It will now make it possible to control volume and frequency with the twist of a knob. “Familiar and easy-to-use knobs are exceptionally good ways for drivers to control in-car entertainment systems,” says Kelley Blue Books’ Jack Nerad. “They make for less distraction and less frustration, and that translates into more convenience and improved safety.”
What’s next? Are we going to see a return to ribbon speedometers, hub-mounted transmission buttons, or three-on-a-tree gear shifters? Not likely. In fact, the industry is moving in a different direction; many of the features that drivers of a certain age find familiar are dying out or already dead. Here’s a partial list:
1. Manual transmissions
Traditional clutch-controlled manual transmissions have certified for the endangered list longer than the black-footed ferret. Automatic transmissions that don’t require a third pedal have simply become slicker, smoother, more efficient, less expensive to buy, and easier on fuel consumption. Manual shifts as a percentage of cars sold had shrunk by half in the last decade to 3.8%, according to Edmunds.com, though they experienced a brief rebound in 2012. The popularity of manumatic shifters along with eight-speed automatics like the one found on the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee should further limit the desirability of stick shifts and limit their availability to specialty models.
Long ago replaced by the fob as the preferred way to open trunks and unlock doors — when was the last time you saw an external keyhole anywhere on a car? — stamped metal keys have been made redundant by ignitions that use start/stop buttons. On higher-end cars, the fob unlocks the door when the key-holder approaches the car, so it need not be lifted from a pocket or purse. Parking garage attendants complain that forgetful customer are forever walking away with their keys and leaving their cars immobilized, but they are in the minority. Coming next: cars that can be unlocked and started with your smartphone.
3. Crank windows
You can still find them on stripper versions of low-end models used for trumpeting rock-bottom prices — assuming that stripper version can be found at all — but seldom anywhere else. Nobody misses them, except for those people who chronically fail to close their windows and thus must restart. As for electric window lifts, they have become so well-established, they became eligible for Medicare this year: They were invented in 1948.
The power exterior antenna for am-fm radio reception and its retro-style cousin, the whip antenna, are long gone. Their functions have been embedded in the rear windshield or a shark fin-shaped enclosure that sits just above it on the roof and can also handle GPS and telephone signals. The big exception is the police car, which still spouts a variety of antennas for scanners, CB radios, and computers. On the plus side, that makes them easier to spot at speed traps.
Also known as safety or emergency brakes, handbrakes are increasingly being replaced by electric brakes that first appeared on the 2001 Renault Vel Satis. With the decline of manual transmissions, you no longer need handbrakes to hold a car on an incline while you delicately engage the clutch. And a new feature called “hill hold” takes over when your car is stopped while climbing and then releases when the driver pushes the gas pedal.
6. Bias-ply tires
In bias-ply tires, the cords were set at angles of travel, so they criss-crossed over each other. By comparison, radial tires avoid having the plies rub against each other as the tire flexes, thus reducing the tire’s rolling friction and producing greater fuel economy. The first radial tire designs were patented in 1915, and Michelin developed them for passenger cars in 1946. But Detroit bitterly resisted their adoption because they were more costly, produced a harsher ride, and required costly suspension adjustments. Demands from consumers after the 1973 gas crisis changed its mind, and by 1983, all new cars came equipped with radials. Along with airbags and multivalve engines, the demise of bias-ply tires remains a landmark of the Detroit Three’s resistance to change.
7. Bench seats
Flat, three-across front and rear seats were standard equipment in American cars until the arrival of smaller and sportier models in the late 1950s. By installing two smaller bucket seats in front, manufacturers were able to increase seating room and leave room for a floor-mounted gear shifter. Although buckets were sportier, offered greater lateral support, and provided secure seat belt anchors, front bench seats held on in larger cars until they became extinct in the second decade of 21st century when the Chevrolet Impala was replaced with a newer model in 2013. Sentimentalists noted that their decline paralleled that of drive-in movie theatres.
8. Hardtop convertibles
Sometimes called “pillarless hardtops,” hardtop convertibles were built without a central roof pillar so they would look like a convertible with the top raised. Along with other design excesses like tailfins, they became popular in the 1950s when annual styling changes had designers searching for new ideas, and the style spread to four-doors and even station wagons. But hardtops are inherently less rigid, and they needed to be reinforced with a heavier structure. The hardtop convertible began to disappear in the mid-1970s, partly out of a concern about federal safety regulations, and the 1978 Chrysler Newport and New Yorker became the last true hardtops. Today manufacturers today like to mimic the style by blacking out the central pillar instead of eliminating it.
9. 85 mph speedometers
Remember the “Double Nickel?” That was the federal law passed in 1974 that prohibited speed limits higher than 55 mph as a fuel-saving measure. Five years later during the Carter administration, NHTSA required speedometers include a special emphasis on the number 55 to keep drivers focused on the legal rate and forbid them from registering a maximum speed above 85 mph. The speedometer limits didn’t govern the speed of the car, though, and the 85 mph max looked pretty silly on cars like the Chevy Corvette. NHTSA began rolling back the regulation in 1981 after discovering it did little to change driver behavior. Today, speedometers routinely go to 160 mph, even though the maximum allowable speed limit is less than half that.
10. Spare tires
As manufacturers search for ways to reduce cost and weight, the full-size spare tire is headed the way of the passenger pigeon. Tires may still go flat, but cars will be equipped with donut spares or motorized patch kits or sometimes nothing at all. Run-flat tires, with either automatic sealing or reinforced sidewalls, can fill some of the void, but they are more expensive and compromise ride quality. Nobody enjoys extracting a dirty spare from the under-carriage of a minivan or figuring out how to operate an unfamiliar jacking system, but there was a certain security in knowing that you could always find your way home after a flat no matter the day or time.
11. Hinged vent windows
To fill that awkward space between the windshield pillar and the movable window itself, some engineer lost to memory created the tilt or hinged vent window. Much beloved by tobacco lovers because of its ability to suck smoke out of the car, they began to vanish on passenger cars in the 1960s as air conditioning became more popular and designers looked for ways to reduce weight and get a cleaner look. Their extinction would be mourned by forgetful drivers who used them for easy entry after locking their keys inside.