Today, Google has a self-driving prototype, Mercedes has a $230,000 621-horsepower S65 AMG Coupe, and Volkswagen has a 209-mpg hybrid diesel-electric XL1.
What happened in between?
The story starts with Virginia State Trooper Gary Dawson. On March 12, 1990, Dawson wiggled his sedan between the ambulances standing guard over two crumpled 1989 Chrysler LeBarons on VA Route 640. Amazed, he saw the two drivers, Woody and Vansteelant, massaging their bruises on the roadside. It was the first recorded crash in which both vehicles deployed airbags. Even Woody, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, walked away.
Back then, many new automobiles had a single drive-side airbag. Now, a luxury sedan might have eight or nine airbags, several of them inflating in two stages to prevent broken bones. But with Mercedes offering night-vision assist, Cadillac selling a self-parking system, and Volvo offering a collision mitigation system, airbags seem rather passé.
In 2000, Toyota let the world in on a little secret that had been roaming around Japan for three years: the Prius. The second-generation Prius debuted three years later as the wedge-shaped hatchback we all know and love, and the world went gaga over its EPA-estimated 46 mpg. The Prius spawned pure-electric vehicles like the Nissan LEAF, series-hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt, and even redneck engine conversions from B20 diesel to straight vegetable oil.
Telsa Model S
But the undisputed king of the environmental movement arrived in 2012. The Tesla Model S had everything: a perfect NHTSA safety score, 88 combined MPGe, a 265-mile range, 416 horsepower and good looks to shame an Aston Martin. It used a lithium-ion battery. Back in 1990, Sony was the only one manufacturing lithium batteries, and they were mostly for digital cameras. More recently, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a super lithium-ion battery 2,000 more potent than its conventional peers.
Aluminum, once the butt of soda can jokes, made headlines in the 1990s and 2000s. Engine blocks switched from cast iron to aluminum-silica alloy. Frames moved to high-strength steel and aircraft aluminum alloy. In 2014, Ford announced that the 2015 F-150 would have a body of lightweight aluminum, shaving more than 450 pounds and adding some seven mpg to the pickup. BMW attempted something similar using carbon fiber on the all-new BMW i3.
Volkswagen also debuted a 2010 New Beetle Malibu Barbie special edition, complete with a built-in flower vase and a pink oil dipstick, but we don’t have to talk about that.