Top 10 Military Technologies Used In Cars
They say the Devil takes all of man’s best ideas, and turns them to evil intent. They also say that blowing stuff up is awesome, and military equipment is some of the coolest stuff on Earth. Cars...well, they’re a little bit of all of the above.
This article’s pretty straightforward: Topspeed’s list of the Top 10 military technologies to find their way into automobiles. Why 10? Because five wasn’t enough to cover the best ones, and "practically everything ever invented" wouldn’t fit within word count. Indeed, from fuel cell to front bumper, the average car is absolutely packed with ideas that were formed in the crucible of war. Even the wheel itself probably started out on war chariots back in the Bronze Age.
But this article’s going to focus on military innovations within America’s wartime history. Meaning, pretty much since there’s been an America. Even that list could go on for decades; the Devil’s been pretty busy of late. But, we’ve got self-driving hybrid supercars going 300 mph now, and Lamborghinis modeled after stealth fighters. So, maybe it all worked out for the best.
Here’s the list.
Radar, Laser and Sonar Ranging
Electronic warfare debuted in 1940, when the U.S. Navy developed a top-secret system known as Radio Detection and Ranging — aka "radar." Those early systems helped to protect ships from sneak attacks from the sky, and provided ranging and targeting information for guns.
Modern radar detecters and jammers are direct descendants of of those first systems used on Allied battleships and night fighters.
This technology proved critical for the allies, and most credit it for saving the British from getting wiped off the map by providing early warning of German air raids and V-1 "buzz bomb" attacks from across the English Channel. Later, radar-equipped night fighters (on both sides) made the night skies over Germany an inky black ocean of sudden death.
Of course, radar eventually found its way into police cars — but it didn’t take long for cop-borne radar to meet its old nemesis on the road. Radar detection has existed for as long as radar itself, and signal jammers appeared within a few months of Germany figuring out the Allies’ secret. A signal jammer works by effectively flooding the radar gun’s frequency with energy, killing the signal return. Modern radar detecters and jammers are direct descendants of of those first systems used on Allied battleships and night fighters.
These days, radar is more often used for ranging — detecting vehicles and pedestrians ahead of and around the vehicle to help out with things like adaptive cruise control and automatic braking. But it’s been joined in recent years by two other military ranging technologies. Sonar hit the scene for submarine detection well before radar debuted, and we use it today on those back-up warning systems in SUVs. In this case, sonar is preferable to radar because radio energy can penetrate organic object like kids and pets. Not good.
However, sonar is very limited in terms of range in open air — longer ranges require LIDAR, which works just like radar but with lasers. LIDAR works fantastically well for very rapid, highly accurate and high-resolution digital imaging. Jets have been using it for decades for terrain mapping, and weaving at low altitude between mountains and buildings. Autonomous cars use it for exactly the same reason, but substitute "mountains and buildings" with "pedestrians and other cars."
You probably already know the GPS nav system in your car relies on positioning information from a network of satellites. What you might not know is that those satellites were put there by the Department of Defense in 1995 as a means to guide ships and missiles.
However, satellite positioning goes back a lit further than 1995. Back in 1960, the U.S. Navy tested its first satnav system, a constellation of five satellites known as TRANSIT. Those satellites provided positioning information once an hour. Seven years later, the Navy put an atomic clock called Timaton in space — a pre-requisite for a functioning GPS system. Fun Fact: Because of the gravity-dependent time dilation predicted by Einstein, time actually passes slower in orbit than it does on the ground. Satellite-borne clocks are designed to run deliberately fast so they stay in sync with clocks on the ground. Cool, huh?
Technically, the idea of turbocharging was patented back in 1905, but nobody actually built and used one on an engine until 1915. It was then that a French engineer named Auguste Rateau fitted a few prototype turbos to Renault engines powering French fighter planes. Three years later, General Electric engineer Sanford Moss attached a blower to a Liberty V-12 aircraft engine.
Oddly, aircraft turbos weren’t meant to increase net power. Aircraft engines always lost power at higher altitude, because the air gets thinner as you get closer to the stratosphere. At the time, turbos were set up to simply maintain a ground-level 14 psi of air pressure regardless of altitude. Originally, the wastegate would stay fully open on take-off, and gradually close to spool the turbo up as the airplane climbed to altitude.
We’ve known about titanium since 1791, but it wasn’t possible to refine the ore to its pure state until 1910. And even then, pure titanium proved very hard to work with, and generally not worth the cost or effort. Especially considering the fact that most of the world’s titanium was (and is) in Russia. The Soviet Union started using it in Alfa and Mike Class submarines in the 1950s and 1960s. America discovered the wonders of titanium about the same time, first using it in the F100 Super Sabre fighter jet, and then in the legendary, super-secret SR-71 Blackbird. Unfortunately, the Blackbird used a lot of titanium, and it wasn’t exactly easy to come by. Ironically, much of the titanium used to build the spy plane came from Russia itself, purchased slowly and in small quantities through top-secret third parties. Russia’s titanium did eventually return home...overhead, at 2,200 mph.
Anti-lock brakes were first developed in 1929 by French aviation pioneer and overall engineering genius Gabriel Voisin. This era saw the first use of heavy bomber aircraft, which tended to land hard, burst tires and take a long time to stop. Voisin’s mechanical, flywheel-type ABS system allowed his bombers to land on much shorter runways and operate much closer to the front lines of battle. These mechanical ABS systems continued in use on aircraft almost unchanged for the next 50 years. Aircraft started getting electronic ABS systems in the early 1970s, about the same time similar systems showed up on GM cars.
Drive by Wire and Autopilot
You probably guessed this one was coming back in the LIDAR section.
A lot of vehicles today use some kind of drive-by-wire system. While most people think of things like electronic throttle control as a fairly recent innovation, modern drive-by-wire throttles descend pretty directly from those electronic throttle stops used on Quadrajet carburetors in the 1970s. In that application, a small servo in the throttle stop helped to keep the car’s idle steady; today, many cars use fully electric throttles that play the key role in traction and stability systems. More recently, auto-makers have begun using electrical actuators on the brakes for stability control and automatic braking. Which, funny enough, uses that other military technology, radar.
These systems descend from the fly-by-wire systems used in aircraft since the 1930s. Russian firm Tupelov used electronic signaling of control surfaces way back then on the ANT-20, but almost all modern fighters and bombers use fully electronic controls for flight surfaces and the throttle. Ultimately, the aircraft’s avionics computer actually controls the plane; pilots just tell the computer what they want the plane to do. That’s not dissimilar to how a lot of modern cruise, traction and stability control systems work.
Soon, electronic car controls will merge almost completely with aircraft, and we’ll have the one thing planes have enjoyed for decades: auto-pilot. See our article on Self-Driving Cars for more details.
Stability control and autopilot systems need a lot of sensors to work — among them accelerometers and gyroscopes. These sensors also originally started out in flying military hardware. Albeit, not the kind of hardware that needs a runway to land.
It's probably fair to say that the Space Race (and GPS) never would have happened without the V-2.
Long before cars started using them, gyroscopic stabilizers showed up in the nosecones of the world’s first long-range weapon of mass destruction: Germany’s V-2 ballistic missile. Designed by rocket genius Werner von Braun, the V-2 launched from fortified pads in Pennemunda and rained terror down on London until the end of the war. While undoubtedly a horrifying weapon, the world ultimately got a lot out of the V-2. After the war, American, British and Russian scientists closely studied captured V-2 rockets; they ultimately became the basis for every ICBM and space rocket since. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the Space Race (and GPS) never would have happened without the V-2.
The V-2 used a gyroscopic stabilizer in its guidance system, which functioned very similarly in principle to those used in automotive stability control computers today. Stability control computers that don’t use gyros typically employ accelerometers, a closely related device that performs the same task, and has also long been used in missile guidance systems.
All of this stability control and radar guidance stuff is great, but none of it would be possible without computers. Which, as you’ve probably guessed by now, were also Second World War innovations.
Most people these days already know the story of Collossus, the top-secret computer built by England to break Germany’s unbeatable Lorentz Code. Britain ultimately built 10 of the massive machines, which used up to 2,400 vacuum tubes (aka "valves," a type of mechanical relay) to act as on/off switches in the circuitry. These machines were absolutely enormous, requiring 7.5 kilowatts of power to run, filling up a very large room, and weighing over a ton.
Compared to today’s computers, the Collusus was so slow it would almost be hard to measure. Put it this way: The dated Core i7 processor in the laptop I’m using to write this measures about one inch square, and runs about 518 times faster than the best Colossus computer. And a new IBM z13 Storage Controller (also about an inch square) is about 2,700 times faster than Colossus.
A new IBM z13 Storage Controller (also about an inch square) is about 2,700 times faster than Colossus.
These modern chips use nanoscopic, semi-conducting transistors, which perform exactly the same task as those old vacuum tube relays, but are so small they can only be seen with an electron microscope. Care to guess where those came from?
That would be Germany, just after WWII. Those first point-contact transistors were invented by German physicists Herbert Matare and Heinrich Walker. Matare originally developed the principle while working on crystal rectifiers in WWII, as part of the German effort to develop radar. Germany never did put together radar systems on par with the Allies. But when used as a replacement for vacuum tubes, Matare’s transistors did ultimately go on to spawn the microprocessors of today.
Some of the things on this list probably haven’t surprised you much, but this one might. We might not think much about those smooth holes in our engine blocks today, but they haven’t been around forever.
Cylinder bores have probably done more to change the world than any other holes in history.
In fact, the cylinder bores that made the internal combustion engine possible are fairly recent inventions, [Cylinder bores] have probably done more to change the world than any other holes in history, and started out as a weapon of war.
Back in 1774, England was in the middle of a four-way naval war with France, Spain and Portugal. One of those was a little proxy war brewing in a far-away colony called America. American colonialists were itching to break free of English rule, and France was all too happy to help break Britain’s back by helping. France threw its support behind the American rebels, much as we later did with Vietnam and Afghanistan. Partly to spread democracy, but mostly as proxy wars to drain the Soviets of cash and resources, It was the same thing between France and England. We were France’s (first) Vietnam.
But England had been heavy into the war industry for some time, and just prior to the Revolutionary War an English industrialist named John "Iron Mad" Wilkenson invented a revolutionary machine — the very first machine tool, in fact: A cylinder boring machine designed to cut, hone and rifle cannon barrels for England. Smooth, straight and consistently sized cannon barrels made for tighter-fitting cannon balls. That meant much longer range and more power with less gunpowder. Britain could now carry more ammunition, more cannons and more powder on its warships — and they used those ships to decimate the navies of its rivals, and establish a worldwide empire. Well, worldwide except for that little ground war they lost in North America...thanks to the French.
But all of that came a bit later, because Iron Mad’s first project was to cut better cylinder bores for the steam engines that ran his large cylinder boring machines. Smoother bores meant tighter-fitting pistons, lower oil consumption, less coal burned, longer engine life, more power, and ultimately more cannon barrels drilled for The Empire.
So, if cylinder bores are second to last on this list, what military technology do we end it with? What military technology could possibly be more important than cylinder bores in making cars (and again, the entire Industrial Age) possible? It’s one most of us take even more for granted than holes in engine blocks: interchangeable parts.
The approach to metal-working at the time was much more akin to carpentry than anything else.
Believe it or not, there was a time when not every bolt fit every nut. When John Wilkenson started drilling bores for cannons and steam engines, he had to have every single nut and bolt custom cut, machined to match each other, and individually numbered so bolts from one part of his machines didn’t wind up on another part. At this time, there was no such thing as a standard-sized nut or bolt, and every last part in every single machine had to be custom fit and filed together. The approach to metal-working at the time was much more akin to carpentry than anything else. Wilkenson could build a hundred boring machines, and every one of them would use unique parts; nuts and bolts that could not be used on any other boring machine. Break something? Tough luck...you have to go down to the blacksmith, and have a whole new one custom made and fit to your machine.
The same was true for all machines, though. Including guns.
In 1801, legendary American inventor Eli Whitney demonstrated a solution. You probably recognize his name as the inventor of the cotton gin, but he was also one of the single most important figures in the Industrial Revolution. First, because he also invented the milling machine — the other tool we use to machine engine parts. Because of the cylinder bore and milling machines, Whitney and Wilkenson are usually rightly regarded as the fathers of industry today — as well as the fathers of a further two centuries of war.
The American Revolution really was France’s Vietnam. It completely bankrupted the country, and directly led to the French Revolution. Europe erupted into all-out chaos, and the newly formed United States was getting dragged back into it. Whitney, seeing conflict looming on the horizon, showed up at the War Department (now, less accurately known as "The Department of Defense") with 10 very special muskets.
Right in front of the ministers of war, he completely disassembled all 10 guns, tossed the parts in a sack, and dumped them all back out on a table. He then began grabbing parts, and putting them back together into 10 functioning muskets.
The world quickly filled up with weapons, and the machines to move, arm and kill vast quantities of soldiers -- and that's been the story ever since.
Whitney had just demonstrated history’s first recorded use of standardized, interchangeable parts.
This led not only to an explosion in industry worldwide, but explosions of violence and chaos. The world quickly filled up with weapons, and the machines to move, arm and kill vast quantities of soldiers — and that’s been the story ever since.
But, a lot of good did come out of it. Whitney’s interchangeable parts made mass production possible, and that made machines much cheaper and easier to produce. It’s not impossible that cars could have existed even without interchangeable parts; but if they did, they’d probably cost a million dollars a piece. Interchangeable parts didn’t exactly make automobiles possible in the same way boring and milling machines did — but interchangeable parts did make it possible for all of us to own a car.
There we go — that’s Topspeed’s list of the Top 10 military technologies to find their way into automobiles. Some nifty gadgets, like radar and computers, have made cars cooler. Turbochargers and titanium made them faster, and drive-by-wire and guidance sensors have helped to make them safer. "Iron Mad" Wilkenson and Eli Whitney helped to make guns deadlier and more abundant, but they also made cars possible in the first place. And the world is significantly more awesome for that.
They say the Devil takes our best ideas and makes them his own. But maybe there’s some consolation in the fact that, from time to time, he gives a little back.
Want to hear about that 300 mph hybrid supercar now?