5 Space Technologies That Made Their Way To Automobiles

Technological advancements and developments tend to trickle down from specialized use to more commercialized applications.

If history is anything to go by, there is ample proof that the coolest gadgets we get to play with today once belonged exclusively to more “serious” operations. Be it high-speed internet, duct tape, or sanitary napkins, all were handed to us through the commercialization of previously exclusive technology.

Kiev,,Ukraine,-,September,20,,2017:,Damaged,Car,With,Duct

Dear Duct Tape – What would we do without you? (Photo Credit : Bilanol/Shutterstock)

However, did you know that your car is equipped with features that weren’t designed to be used for earth-bound applications at all? These features, or rather, the underlying technology, was merely adapted to suit automotive needs, and future tech is defining how the industry shapes up as a whole today. Let’s examine some of these crossover technologies in more detail.


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1. GPS and navigation systems

Satellites,Flying,Around,Earth,Background

GPS was initially driven by a group of satellites used by the Department of Defense to locate military personnel across the globe (Photo Credit : Boris Rabtsevich/Shutterstock)

Navigation systems are rapidly becoming irreplaceable in daily life. They have virtually obliterated the need to remember routes, and can even function without the internet enabled. This is achieved by means of GPS (geo positioning satellite), which can locate various paths between your current location and your desired destination.

GPS systems were initially developed for military use by the United States Department of Defense in 1973. It comprised a network of 11 orbiting satellites that could determine the presence of military equipment and personnel anywhere across the globe.

Gps,App,Screen,Smartphone,Installed,At,Motorcycle,Handle,Bar,For

Today, GPS and navigation systems form an irreplaceable part of our lives (Photo Credit : Casezy idea/Shutterstock)

Today, the use of navigation systems is less mission critical and more democratized. The way navigation systems are deployed in motor vehicles has also evolved over time. Navigation systems began as standalone modules that could be retrofit in cars. Today, they are just an additional function that can be performed by the built-in infotainment system, or even your personal smartphone. They find nearly constant use in route mapping and tracking for drivers across the world.

2. Tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS)

Tpms,(tire,Pressure,Monitoring,System),Monitoring,Display,On,Car,Dashboard

Modern day TPMS is an evolution of the landing gear used in spacecraft (Photo Credit : Fast_Cyclone/Shutterstock)

Putting air into your tires is one of the most trivial and often overlooked aspects of almost all vehicle ownership. However, the amount of air in your tires plays a crucial role in determining the cushioning you have against bad roads, while improving occupant comfort and gas mileage.

Thus, many modern cars are now outfitted with small sensors present at the valve of your tire that relay the air pressure information to the driver. While this might seem like an extremely first-world problem, the original use for TPMS was more important.

Space,Shuttle,Atlantis,Landing,At,Edwards,Air,Force,Base,In

Space shuttles are generally heavier and land faster than commercial aircraft, making TPMS an absolute necessity (Photo Credit : Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

In order to ensure that space shuttles would land safely, it was important to ensure that they did not have a flat tire! NASA hired an agency to design an appliance that would provide the exact tire pressure details to the astronauts. Tire pressure sensors are made of a piezo-resistive material that converts pressure into electrical resistance. Resistance fluctuates with any change in tire pressure, which is then recorded as the amount of air available in the tire.

3. Carbon fiber

Carbon fiber was initially used in making fan blades for jet engines, before it was used in automobiles

Carbon fiber was initially used in making fan blades for jet engines, before being used in automobiles (Photo Credit : Shutterstock)

Carbon fiber remains, by far, the most popular evolution in material sciences to date. While it is not a tangible technology in terms of interactive use, carbon fiber has been a favorite in the automobile industry for many years. Made from weaving long threads of graphite fibers, carbon fiber is known for its superior mechanical properties that rival even metal alloys. Some of these include high tensile strength, light weight and low thermal expansion. Some companies are pushing the limits even further, by integrating titanium alloy thread in the weave of the carbon fiber, which helps harness the benefits of both materials.

However, carbon fiber was originally invented with no particular use in mind. It began its life as bulb filament material that was manufactured rather inefficiently using organic material. Manufacturers would eventually shift to using more effective techniques from petroleum derivatives to make carbon fiber and then used it in making compressor and fan blades in aircraft engines. Carbon fiber today is synonymous with more expensive cars and performance-oriented driving. Current manufacturing processes, however, make it infeasible for incorporating in everyday vehicles.

However, carbon fiber is not the only material that has found its way from space to earth. Heat shields made of gold and flame-retardant fabrics that were exclusively meant for space use now find extensive use in motor racing.

4. Heads up display (HUDs)

Who amongst us isn’t familiar with Iron Man’s uber-cool digital butler, Jarvis? Chances are, we have all craved one for ourselves! While Jarvis was more of a computer graphic than a heads-up display, he fulfilled much the same purpose.

What we have is a heads-up display that is appearing more frequently in cars. Heads up displays project vital pieces of information onto the windscreen or the visor without affecting the visibility of the driver. This enables them to receive critical information without having to take their eyes off the road.

Carbon fiber was initially used in making fan blades for jet engines, before it was used in automobiles

Heads up displays project critical information onto the windscreen so that the driver is not distracted (Photo Credit : Shutterstock & Wikimedia Commons)

Originally, heads up displays were deployed for aircraft pilots for both military and domestic flying assistance. While old aircraft have HUD units placed along the windscreens, newer technology has it built into pilots’ helmets for better adaptability, irrespective of the aircraft being flown. They are finding use in cars too, where they serve information such as track telemetry, air pressure, speeds and RPMs without the driver having to look away to consult their gauges. In order to improve the competitive advantage for manufacturers, they are also being introduced in more economical cars.

5. Self-driving capabilities

Mars,Rover,Exploring,Surface,Of,Mars.,Image,Of,Automated,Robotic

Vehicles designed for planet exploration were the precursors to modern-day autonomous driving (Photo Credit : Corona Borealis Studio/Shutterstock)

Autonomous driving is no longer a figment of our sci-fi imagination. With increases in road use and the hazards associated with it, self-driving protocols have already begun integrating into modern vehicles. However, autonomous driving, as we know it today, wasn’t developed for civilian use. It was designed by NASA for space modules that were meant to explore the moon and Mars.

They used several types of imaging equipment and sensors to avoid obstacles and maneuver around obstacles. The same data has been coupled with artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning to help improve driving protocols on Earth.

A Final Word

Technological advancements and developments have a trickle-down effect. In other words, what was once exclusively used in extraordinary situations eventually finds its way to the general customer. It is also interesting to note that much of what is available to us for greater convenience was originally developed for military application.

Not only is it acceptable to borrow technology from other disciplines, but it seems downright essential!

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About the Author

Prashant is a mechanical engineer and MBA from NMIMS University, Mumbai. An auto-fanatic with an insatiable need for speed, he is constantly on the look out for new technology in the field of automobiles. When he is not working, he loves to read, blog about cars, test the latest rides on the market and wash his own vehicles.

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