Abandoned Automotive Technologies

by Dave Schuler on February 12, 2014

Automotive technologies, even technologies in which the sponsoring companies are heavily invested, are not eternal. Just off the top of my head here’s a list of automotive technologies tried and then abandoned for one reason or another:

the Wankel engine
push-button transmissions
steam-powered cars
early electric cars
the first talking car (Datsun 810 Maxima)
automatic shoulder belts
turbine-powered cars

and my favorite, the Ford Nucleon—a nuclear-powered concept car. What could possibly go wrong?

Some of these technologies have been introduced again and again only to be abandoned each time. So, simply because a car company or even many car companies have invested billions in development of something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s here to stay.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

... February 12, 2014 at 12:39 pm

push-button transmissions

Isn’t that basically what flappy-paddle transmissions are? Those are fairly popular on high-end performance cars.

... February 12, 2014 at 12:41 pm

And by high-end performance, I mean cars that result in famous people getting cooked alive when they invariably do something they have no talent for at very high speeds.

TastyBits February 12, 2014 at 12:53 pm


The semi-manual transmissions are pretty good. I still prefer a manual, but few cars have the proper driver configuration to work it correctly. They take some getting used to, but they will not let you kill the engine.

TastyBits February 12, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Years ago I had a RX-7, it was a good car, and the rotary engine never had any problems. The spark plugs were weird, but the engine had to be serviced at the dealer. If there was no dealer around where you broke down, you were out of luck.

Steam powered cars took too long to heat-up, but Jay Leno says they ride great.

Old folks will remember the airbag debate. Automatic shoulder belts were a cheaper alternative. I think there were also small cars that used a mechanical system on the door because of space issues.

Dave Schuler February 12, 2014 at 1:36 pm

My dad’s dream car was a steam-powered car—he used to say that their only limits were on the driver rather than the car.

The Wankel engines were phased out because they couldn’t meet emissions standards.

Ron Beasley February 12, 2014 at 2:22 pm

Back in the 60s my Father had a Chrysler with a push-button transmission and the buttons were constantly coming off.

Dave Schuler February 12, 2014 at 3:08 pm

“TorqueFlite” was one of the names that Chrysler used for that. There was another but I can’t recall it right now.

... February 12, 2014 at 3:18 pm


So, you’d torque a button and it would fly off? Sounds … inefficient somehow.

... February 12, 2014 at 3:19 pm

From what I’ve seen of them, though, the well-designed flappy-paddles look awesome. But again, you’d need a car that really needed such a device, and they’re both expensive and ridiculously impractical, at least in the US.

TastyBits February 12, 2014 at 3:44 pm


… flappy-paddles …

If you mean an automatic transmission with a manual shift mode using up-down switches, then most standard sized cars and SUV’s have them. Some are on the steering wheel. Some are on the shift. Some use the shift. They do not use a clutch. You just click up and down, but if you click into 1st at 100 mph, it will not actually shift into 1st gear.

If you drive aggressive, you can keep the vehicle in the gear you want, but it eats up gas. Depending upon the car and with practice, you can blow through curves at twice the posted speed, but you will have to listen to the wife bitch.

... February 12, 2014 at 3:49 pm

TB, technically I think they’re usually called semi-automatic transmissions, and I didn’t know SUVs had them. So far I’ve only ever seen them on cars that cost a lot of money. (Recently discovered Top Gear, so I’ve been maxing out on that on sleepless nights.) But then I’ve got no interest in SUVs, not even if I had the money.

I do hear they’re supposed to be the future, but I don’t see why most people wouldn’t just stick with an automatic. It’s not like most people really need the enhanced performance of the flappy-paddle. Seriously, why would I need more out of my transmission tooling around in my Camry, LOL.

... February 12, 2014 at 3:56 pm

Oh, wait, I see what you’re talking about. No, that’s not what I mean.

The SATs are a system that allows for rapidly shifting gears manually, withOUT a clutch. Two paddles (generally) on either side of the steering wheel. One will shift you up a single gear, the other will shift you down a single gear. The best ones shift gears far faster than pretty much anyone could using a clutch. (Apparently not so much for the badly designed/built ones.) Here’s how the Ariel Atom 500′s works:

The flappy paddle gearbox can shift gears within 0.004 seconds so that no drop in power is noticed, and also helps the Atom V8 get from 0-60mph in around 2.5 seconds.


The problem, such as it is, is that you can only switch up or down one gear at a time. So if you want to slam it straight into third from first, or vice-verse, you’re humped.

... February 12, 2014 at 4:00 pm

With that Ariel Atom 500, basically the car will have shifted gears before your fingers start to release the paddle, or just after, depending on when the trigger happens. That’s really friggin’ quick!

Dave Schuler February 12, 2014 at 4:07 pm

FWIW, IMO it’s too early to tell whether all of the electronics and computer-assist stuff will endure or not. Not the under-the-hood stuff but parking assist, etc. I can tell you with some confidence that the U. S. automakers aren’t adopting it due to any particular merit but to differentiate themselves from competitors. They’re worried about low-end competition from China and India.

TastyBits February 12, 2014 at 4:15 pm


When we went to Gatlinburg, I rented a SUV, and in the mountains, you can eliminate all the downshifting from overdrive. The thing goes into 6th gear as soon as it can, and you have to mash down the accelerator pedal to get the thing going uphill. It shifts into 3rd or 4th, and the mother-in-law starts her crap. Using the manual, the mother-in-law is alive, and I do not visit the Tennessee prison system.

I like a manual transmission for the control, but I like an automatic for the convenience. This gives you some of the benefits of a manual with the convenience of an automatic.

Most people do not know how to drive, and they do not know how to drive fast. That is the problem.

TastyBits February 12, 2014 at 4:30 pm


I do not see the real world application. A clutched manual allows you to skip gears and coast. If the driver’s layout is correct, you can use heel-toe braking, and never miss a beat.

... February 12, 2014 at 5:41 pm

TB, the application seems to be at the higher end of performance. Especially for people who lack the coordination to use s clutch! Just because you can afford a Bugatti Veyron doesn’t mean you know how to use a clutch.

But depending on the performance capability of a flappy-paddle, it might not matter that you can’t skip gears – two finger flicks will be faster than just about anyone would be able use a floor clutch.

... February 12, 2014 at 5:48 pm

Schuler, I agree with your assessment of all the electronic doohickies. I know not only would I not want to pay for them, I simply couldn’t afford them. Which means I fully expect the Democratic Party to push for all these things to be mandated by law, so as to push more people out of cars. For safety, of course.

Red Barchetta February 12, 2014 at 10:39 pm

For what its worth…….

I, like most, was always a manual tranny freak in Porsches. But they absolutely perfected (smoothness and speed) an auto. I won’t go back.. And screw the stupid paddles.

... February 13, 2014 at 8:18 am

Drew, be sure to inform F1 that they need to change what they’re doing because you said so.

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