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Anyone using Google today will see a unique Google Doodle. The Doodle that appears today is in honour of Alessandro Volta, the man credited with creating the first battery in 1799. Since that time, batteries and other electric systems have found their way into nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Of course, vehicles are no different. Vehicles have evolved from having no electronics, to using some, to being fully electric. is back for another installment in our Parting Wisdom series, this time looking at vehicle electrical systems.

As mentioned, the first batteries appeared at the dawn of the 19th century. It would still be quite some time before the first vehicles would begin to appear. When the first vehicles did appear, there was no modern ignition, headlights, or any other systems that would require a battery. The first modern vehicles were void of any vehicle electrical systems. Of all the modern luxuries, it was the horn that first brought about the dawn of vehicle electrical systems.

Sounding The Early Vehicle Electrical System

Before 1910, speeding motorists would often shout or ring a bell to let pedestrians know they were coming. In 1910, the first electronic car horn (known then as a klaxon, a word derived from the Greek term for shreik) was introduced by Oliver Lucas. This early system was powered by a dry cell battery. In modern vehicles, your battery is what is known as a wet cell battery. This means the electrolyte, or the material that conducts the electricity, is a liquid. In dry cell batteries this material is a powder or paste. Dry cell batteries are currently found in smaller applications, such as “AA” batteries for remotes and other devices. The dry cell battery used in early vehicle electrical systems was used up quickly, and like other dry cell batteries, it had to be replaced when used. This was expensive at the time. Over the next few months, storage batteries quickly evolved and became much more reliable. New batteries would last a month on a charge, at which point they would be removed from the vehicle and charged. Automakers then began turning their attention to the dynamo, a device capable of generating DC voltage through its use. The dynamo meant that the battery no longer had to be removed from the vehicle to be charged. Now that vehicles had a batteries that were reliable, automakers started looking for what else could be added to the vehicle.

Electronic lights began gaining popularity in the late 1800’s. Once vehicles were able to use a proper battery, car makes began outfitting their vehicles with electronic lights. A storage battery, charged by a dynamo, providing power to the vehicle’s horn and lights was the first example of vehicle electrical systems.

Starting The Modern Vehicle Electrical System

The next advent in vehicle electrical systems came from Cadillac. While helping a stranded motorist, a close friend (Byron J. Carter) of the then head of Cadillac (Henry M. Leland) tried to crank start a vehicle. The car backfired, and sent the crank handle into his jaw. While in the hospital for a broken jaw, things got worse and eventually Carter died. This prompted Leland to devote his efforts to ridding the world of the very dangerous hand crank ignition system. The 1912 models of Cadillac featured starter switches, but still retained a backup crank system. Not wanting to fall behind the sales boom that followed the first vehicle electrical systems, other manufacturers began adopting the new starters and electronics. In 1915, the first designs of a refillable wet cell battery appeared, making batteries even more reliable. By 1924, nearly all vehicles had adopted vehicle electrical systems. The new electrical systems created more power than was needed by the headlights and horn, so some of the power was then routed to igniting the air and fuel mixture in the engine via spark plugs.

At this point, we’re still a long way from the electronics we see in our cars today. While the dynamo worked well to power the less demanding vehicle electrical systems, the demands of World War II proved to be too great. In order to keep up with the needed power output, a new form of power generation was needed. This came in the form of replacing the Direct Current voltage of the dynamo with the Alternating Current of the alternator. After the war, Chrysler introduced the first combination starter and ignition switch used with a single key. Prior to that, starters had to be activated while trying to power the engine, a sometimes very difficult task. By 1960, alternators had found their way out of military vehicles and into civilian use. The combination of modern wet cell batteries, ignition systems, and working electrical components means the first modern vehicle electrical systems were in place by 1961.

Vehicles of 1961 and now are very different. Just as the first 50 years of the automobile saw the birth of vehicle electrical systems, the next 50 lead to the modern computer controlled vehicle. Today, most systems in your vehicle are controlled by your ECU, or engine control unit (now more commonly referred to as electronic control unit). Multiple ECUs found under your hood are responsible for things like timing intermittent wipers, delivering the right mixture of fuel to your engine, controlling stability and torque, and a very long list of other features. At any point in your vehicle, there is something that is controlled by a modern vehicle electrical system.

The Future Of Vehicle Electrical Systems

With the higher demand for more luxuries in modern vehicles, vehicle electrical systems have never had more options to power. Things like parking assist, blind spot monitoring, and cameras all take a toll on a vehicles power. Fortunately, batteries and generators have evolved to keep up with the demand. Modern vehicles can take take some of the energy lost during braking and turn it back into electrical power to be stored in the battery, along with power generated in the alternator.

Currently the topic of much debate, many believe the future of automobiles is electric. Today, there are a number of vehicles on the road that are powered only by electricity. These vehicles would use large amounts of advanced batteries, and would represent the pinnacle of aerodynamics, fuel efficiency, and power regeneration. Aside from alternators, electric vehicles would be charged or could draw power from solar panels. In 100 years, vehicle electrical systems have evolved from powering a simple horn, to powering the entire vehicle. The next 100 years should be quite interesting!

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