Is Mainstream Car Development Stagnating Or Advancing?

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Image: Jason Torchinsky/Toyota

The other day in the Jalopnik Slack room, in between the usual sharing pictures of confusing rashes and pretending to read various writers’ deeply unsettling erotic poetry, our Editor-In-Something Rory stated that he felt that auto development was stagnating, as cars from 10 or even 20 years ago just didn’t feel all that different from modern cars. I could kind of see his point, but I think the observation is interesting enough to give it some scrutiny. Is car development actually stagnating, or are we just not looking at things the right way? Time to find out.

To try and assess this, I first need to establish a bit of scope: I want to focus on mainstream automotive development, not the cutting-edge stuff or the archaic heaps lurching along. So, to do that, I’d like to pick a car that has a long history, has been consistently targeted at the same mainstream market, and develops with the prevailing state of the technology as opposed to being a trend-setter.

Fortunately, such a car exists: the Toyota Corolla.

The Corolla has been a very mass-market, mainstream general-purpose automobile for decades, which means we can evaluate the car’s development for a solid 50-year span. Toyota has always been somewhat conservative with developing the Corolla, updating and redesigning it to incorporate the current level of automotive tech at a constant but hardly rapid pace. It makes the Corolla an ideal guidepost for seeing when various automotive developments have matured and could be considered standard in the industry.

So, with our focus car found, let’s track the development of the Corolla on a decade-by-decade basis, starting in 1973. This won’t be every single generation of Corolla, just comparing Corollas that are 10 years apart.

Also, I’ll be mentioning the very unscientific and subjective metric of how a car “feels,” which is just the general, overall sense you get when driving or riding in a particular vehicle. Most people can “feel” how old a car seems to be, and almost anyone, placed into two cars a decade or so apart, can likely tell you which is older and which is newer, even factoring for the car’s condition. So, when I talk about this overall feel, don’t pretend like you don’t know what I mean.

Ready? Let’s do this.

Image for article titled Is Mainstream Car Development Stagnating? Let's Figure It Out

Image: Jason Torchinsky/Toyota

This first decade is a pretty dramatic one when it comes to changes. The 1970s Corolla represented the trailing end of automotive engineering and design development that could be thought of as starting after WWII: rear-wheel drive, carbureted engines, four-speed manual transmissions and three-speed automatics, minimal complex electronics, not much real aerodynamic design. It was more advanced than a car of the 1950s, but mostly just evolutionary changes through the ‘50s and ‘60s as opposed to radical design changes.

The switch into the 1980s Corolla was pretty dramatic: the fifth generation of Corolla arrived in 1983, and was the first generation of Corolla to move to a transverse engine/front-wheel drive layout, a change that came a bit after most other mainstream carmakers had made this move, especially for small affordable cars.

The 1980s were what I would consider to be the era of Proto-Modernity, mostly thanks to electronics. The first microprocessor was introduced in 1971, and by the late 1970s complex computing devices were being sold affordably to large numbers of people for the first time: think things like the Atari 2600 game system as an example.

This meant that by the early 1980s microchips and other electronics were ready to be deployed in cars, so we see modern innovations like computer-controlled fuel injection systems and more advanced instrumentation making an appearance.

Automotive design became more clean and angular, with early CAD systems helping to focus on better aerodynamics, which helped performance and fuel economy.

The change from the 1970s to the 1980s is dramatic because the ‘70s are the end of a long evolutionary era, and the 1980s is the transition to a radically new approach to carbuilding.

I’d say development here was significant, maybe even dramatic. There’s a world of difference between a ‘70s and ‘80s car, something that anyone who works on cars from the ‘70s and ‘80s would tell you.

Image for article titled Is Mainstream Car Development Stagnating? Let's Figure It Out

Image: Jason Torchinsky/Toyota

Going from the 1980s to the 1990s is less dramatic than the change from the 1970s to 1980s, but is still significant. I consider the 1980s a transition era as carmakers are getting used to a whole new array of tools, techniques, and equipment provided by the microelectronics boom.

The ‘80s saw a lot of experimentation and exploration, some frivolous like digital dashes and talking cars, but others set the groundwork for the first decade of what I would consider Automotive Modernity, the 1990s.

By the 1990s, electronics were fully integrated into automotive engineering, and design was extremely aero-focused, leading to a decade of very similar-looking jellybean cars.

Engine power improved significantly from the ‘80s (22 horsepower in our Corollas here), but fuel economy dropped a bit, partially as a result of significantly improved safety. The 1990s were also the era where people finally decided that, given the choice, they’d rather not die in cars, so we see the start of mass airbag deployment, anti-lock brakes, and the start of common traction control systems.

Design-wise, this is also the era of common painted bumper caps, which kind of defeat the purpose of bumpers, but, well, whatever.

A lot went on in these ten years, and the difference between a 1980s and 1990s car is extremely noticeable, even to people who don’t care about cars at all.

Image for article titled Is Mainstream Car Development Stagnating? Let's Figure It Out

Image: Jason Torchinsky/Toyota

The decade from the 1990s to the early 2000s is an evolutionary one, as opposed to a dramatic one like the ‘70s to ‘80s, or a transition one like the ‘80s to ‘90s. The fundamentals didn’t really change much at all, but everything got more refined, integrated, and improved. If you wanted to chart this along with the Japanese economy getting puffed up rising and rising from the ‘70s through the ‘80s and then collapsing in the early ‘90s, you’d be right in line with technical development, too.

Horsepower increased significantly — in the case of our Corolla, that means 25 HP, with only minor losses in fuel economy, even as all the equipment in the car multiplied, especially in the area of safety.

Where the ‘93 Corolla had one airbag for the driver, by 2003 there were airbags all over the car, on both sides of the dash, as well as side airbags and side curtain airbags by 2005.

Other safety features like tire pressure monitoring and improved traction control were now expected, and aero continued to both improve and dictate the visual design of the car, which remained pretty much like a bar of well-used soap, except this era brought lighting improvements, with crystal-look projector headlights and maybe even Altezza-inspired taillights, if you were cool enough.

Overall, though, while important changes happened, this was more of an evolutionary era. A 2003 car does feel different than a 1993 car, but the overall change is less dramatic.

Image for article titled Is Mainstream Car Development Stagnating? Let's Figure It Out

Image: Jason Torchinsky/Toyota

If any era can be accused of being a bit stagnant, I think this could be it: 2000s through the 2010s. For the Corolla, power and fuel economy only made very modest gains, and most of the development that can be appreciated was on electronics like the arrival of the color center-stack touchscreen as an expected part of a car’s controls, navigation systems, and mobile phone connectivity via wireless Bluetooth.

Design-wise, it would be hard to tell which of those two cars is the older or newer one, and if you had a pair of 2003 and 2013 Corollas each in equally good shape, I bet most people would be pretty hard pressed to tell which one was which. Remember also that this was an era when GM could get away with selling the Malibu Classic, and that was before the global Recession. Car companies weren’t being encouraged to go big or bold.

That screen on the dash I bet would be the only giveaway.

Image for article titled Is Mainstream Car Development Stagnating? Let's Figure It Out

Image: Jason Torchinsky/Toyota

Going from 2013 to the present, I think we’re seeing a return to more dramatic changes. Aerodynamic understanding has come far enough that designers can take more and more risks, so the new Corolla has a wildly different and far more agressive and complex look to it, with an awful lot going on with all those vents and planes and creases and whatever.

Say what you will, but it’s no longer boring, and that’s a good thing.

Also, power has made a significant jump of 37 horses, and fuel economy has improved despite the higher output.

Safety has continued to improve, with even more airbags, better crumple zones, and active safety features like a backup camera and automatic anti-collision systems both front and rear, blind spot monitoring, and more.

These sensor and electronics improvements suggest that we’re likely entering another transition era, where we’ll be moving towards more and more advanced driver-assist systems, like the dynamic cruise control and lane-keeping systems and other semi-automated-type of driver aids that are becoming nearly expected.

The difference between a 2013 and 2022 car I think is very clear as well, suggesting that we’ve left behind the relative seeming stagnation of the last decade.

Let’s put all of this together on a chart so we can see some big trends:

Image for article titled Is Mainstream Car Development Stagnating? Let's Figure It Out

Graphic: Jason Torchinsky

It’s clear that horsepower and safety have been improving consistently and dramatically, while MPG has remained pretty flat. Well, that’s not entirely true.

If we factor in the past couple decade’s advancements in electrification, I think we can say that ICE/electric hybrids have become common enough over the last decade that we could do this same chart with the 2022 Toyota Corolla Hybrid instead:

Image for article titled Is Mainstream Car Development Stagnating? Let's Figure It Out

Graphic: Jason Torchinsky

With the hybrid, we see horsepower take a dip, but fuel economy taking a significant leap from around 30 to over 50 mpg. Putting the hybrid on here also suggests that perhaps the next decade’s Corolla could be fully electric, too, which would, of course, represent perhaps the most dramatic change of all.

Plus, I didn’t even plot the improvements in emissions, which I believe would show improvements similar to horsepower or (my admittedly kinda guessed) safety. (Looking more broadly at the industry as a whole, increasingly popular trucks and SUVs have eaten up efficiency gains vehicle-by-vehicle.)

After going through all of this, I think we can definitely say that automotive development is not stagnating, though I think it’s reasonable to suggest that maybe it did, at least in obvious, outward ways, from 2000 to the mid-2010s.

Though, even that isn’t really fair, as there was so much evolutionary development happening. In fact, I think even the very question now isn’t really a fair one; it’s maybe better to think of automotive development as going through periods of evolution and transition, which would put the past half-century into a path something like this:

Image for article titled Is Mainstream Car Development Stagnating? Let's Figure It Out

Image: Jason Torchinsky/Toyota

In this reading, the 1970s were the end of an evolutionary period that started after WWII. The 1980s were a transition period to new technologies, which led to widespread acceptance and near-standardization in the 1990s, and grew into maturity by through the 2000s and into the 2010s.

We’re now in a new transition period, one marked by the spread of electrification and advanced driver-assist systems, and this transition seems to be leading into an era of dominant electric cars with near-automated driving features.

It’s sometimes hard to see these patterns when you’re in them, but I feel like, thanks to the steadfast anchor of the Corolla, we’re getting a decent handle on what’s happening, big-picture-wise.

I’ll try to update this in a couple decades, from the confines of my hovering anti-gravity electric autonomous Corolla that has become my new home, vehicle, employer, and lover.

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