This is a guest post by Charles Krome.
The United States is at its best when all citizens are pulling together toward a common goal, even if what’s sometimes uniting us is a common enemy. A classic example is Word War II, when civilian and corporate cooperation was a key to victory. Think of the women who stepped into factories across the country to keep the assembly lines moving, or of the assembly lines themselves, which were committed to building airplanes instead of automobiles. Of course, World War II also led to the development of one particular vehicle that would go on to have a major impact on the auto industry: the Jeep. But it wasn’t the first time—or the last—that American drivers would benefit from military innovation on the road.
Automotive Ancient History
Indeed, the practical predecessor to all of today’s automobiles was created specifically to support reforms in the French military in the 18th century. Designed by Nicholas Joseph Cugnot in 1769, it was a steam-powered tractor that was built on a wooden frame, with wooden wheels, and as a prototype, it could tow up to 5 tons. This was especially important, as the Cugnot steamer was being investigated as a way to pull heavy artillery pieces without using four-legged horsepower. Yet while Cugnot was able to set the world’s first self-propelled vehicle in motion, he didn’t think to equip it with a way to stop. It literally did not have a braking mechanism. That, along with difficulties with steam-powered technology, and a little thing called the French Revolution, spelled its early demise.
The French military was also responsible for the invention of the ambulance. The idea came from Napoleon’s personal surgeon, Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, who was looking to solve a common problem: Though horse-drawn vehicles already were being used in the 1790s to bring the wounded back from the front lines for care, these were crude, unsprung carts that could lead to more injuries as they bounced over ruts and rocks in their paths. Larrey’s ambulances were tailormade for transporting fallen soldiers. By 1865, the first civilian ambulance in the United States was in operation in Cincinnati, and in 1899, the first civilian motorized ambulance had gone into service for the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago.
World War I then saw the introduction of the armored car. Now often used to protect the rich and famous, armored cars were originally engineered to protect members of the Royal Naval Air Squadron in France. In 1914, those servicemen were using a small fleet of Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts for reconnaissance during the German advance, which often brought them into direct fighting. For this, each Ghost carried its own .30-caliber machine gun. But the RNAS had to handle vehicle defense on the fly, and it did so by welding iron boiler pieces to the exteriors of the cars.
Military Vehicles Come Home
The military also is responsible for another type of motorized transportation that’s become popular in the civilian world: the sport-utility vehicle, or SUV. For a lot of people, that immediately brings to mind the classic Jeep. Yet it’s worth noting SUVs actually trace their roots back to the 1935 Chevrolet Suburban—and this vehicle had a military connection as well.
Chevy initially designed the Suburban as a rough-and-ready three-row vehicle for the U.S. National Guard (and the Civilian Conservation Corps). It showed off what’s become typical SUV traits, like three-rows of reconfigurable seating and plenty of cargo space, and featured a 90-horsepower engine and a wooden body.
The Jeep’s influence on the auto industry is impressive in its own right, thanks in large part to its role in World War II. About 650,000 units were produced for the Allied war effort, and their reliability and ruggedness became legendary.As a result, more than 75 years after the war ended, the vehicle’s popularity is still going strong. Consider: The Jeep Wrangler is the SUV most clearly related to the original “Jeep,” with looks that make it instantly recognizable as a relative of the original. Yet despite design cues that go back three quarters of a century, the Wrangler posted its highest sales ever last year. As did the overall Jeep brand.
But the U.S.-based Jeep brand is not the only current sport-utility brand to be directly inspired by that WWII icon. In Post-War Japan, for instance, the government had recognized the need for a “Jeep style” vehicle for its military and public-safety agencies to help with reconstruction. When it put the call to local automakers, Nissan, Toyota and Mitsubishi all responded. Mitsubishi ended up with the contract, but Nissan and Toyota went on to launch successful vehicles that are still on the market in 2016. Nissan’s Patrol isn’t on sale in the United States, but it’s a staple for premium SUV shoppers in other countries, and the Toyota Land Cruiser has a similar positioning in locations, including the U.S.
Technology for Today—and Tomorrow
Perhaps more important for modern-day vehicles are the individual military technologies behind so many of the latest driver-assistance measures. By now we’ve all heard of the Global Positioning System (GPS) that enables in-car navigation technology. GPS is incredibly helpful for drivers nowadays, but it started as a Department of Defense initiative dating back to a satellite-based tracking system of the early 1960s, called “TRANSIT.” GPS devices were available to the public by the early 1980s, yet the military role of the data was still so important that, at the time, the signals were scrambled to reduce accuracy in non-military applications. Only since 2000 have precision GPS-based navigation systems been ready for prime-time usage in cars and trucks.
Following the earliest GPS units, came the first head-up display used in a production vehicle, in the 1989 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme (Indianapolis 500 pace-car edition). Modeled on systems that help fighter pilots find their targets during battle, head-up displays for cars and trucks can project key information—from a vehicle’s speed to the presence of incoming text messages—on the inside of the windshield. That way, it’s easier for drivers to keep their eyes on the road.
Finally, automakers are leveraging the military’s many “ranging” technologies on the way to the development of fully autonomous vehicles: Sonar- and radar-based systems are presently in wide use throughout the industry, providing the ability for in-car computers to detect other vehicles, pedestrians, bicycles and a variety of other potential obstacles. The systems then alert the driver or, in some cases, even take over braking and bring the car to a halt. Other driver-assistance measures can automatically park your car, help maintain a constant distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you, and even provide automatic steering inputs to help you stay in your lane.
Tesla’s latest AutoPilot—with sonar, radar and camera sensors—was engineered to put it all together, serving up all the hardware vehicles need “for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.”
Charles Krome is a car expert and writer for CARFAX living near Detroit. His primary focus is on trends and changes within the automotive industry. Charles’ articles range from car buying and valuation to the history of war-inspired vehicles.