Today, virtually every motor vehicle you see on the road to say nothing of the vehicles manufactured has multiple computers on board that run everything from the engine to collision avoidance and crash safety systems, and do so with far greater efficiency, speed and reliability then any mechanical contrivance or human operator.
Computers are absolutely ubiquitous today, and any vehicle that is made deliberately without them is an anachronism.
Nonetheless, cars and trucks that lack these modern wonders have a certain charm and appeal to people who like to do things the old-fashioned way or know that despite their quirks they can repair the vehicle using nothing more than traditional mechanics tools and diagnostics.
When did cars start featuring computers?
The first truly computerized mass market vehicle was the Volkswagen Type III, released in 1968.
Featuring the Jetronic electronic fuel injection system engineered by Bosch, the Type III utilized a pressure sensor that fed data to a circuit board that then controlled the fuel injection rate in conjunction with engine speed. This was a total replacement of the carburetor and a proper computerized fuel injection system.
But like all such bits of automotive trivia, the answer is somewhat contentious, depending primarily on how one defines the word “computer”.
Serious enough to warrant a thorough, and in-depth discussion about the matter before we inevitably degenerate into name- calling in the comments! I kid. Mostly… Let’s dig into the nuts and bolts below!
Defining “Computer” as Pertaining to Cars
Someone might argue that an electronic ignition could technically be considered computerized because it uses an optical sensor to trigger the coil instead of the older, traditional point breaker ignition system.
Another enthusiast of automotive arcana might wade into the conversation, and make the case that among the very, very earliest computers known to man there existed some that were fluid operated.
Henceforth many automatic transmissions could be said to be fluid operated computers, a necessary subset of “computer”, thanks to the valve bodies integral to those components.
This is a fair argument, but for our purposes, I will be sticking to what’s the most typical of modern definitions of computer, and that is of a printed circuit board, and more germane to the conversation a component that cannot be repaired with your average shade-tree mechanic’s hand tools.
These are the computerized components that your grandparents and great-grandparents probably lamented since they resulted in the dawn of the automotive technician, and began the sunset of the traditional automotive mechanic.
The Automotive Computer Revolution
After Volkswagen pioneered their breakthrough with the Type III in 1968, it took a minute for other manufacturers to follow suit, all wanting their share of a new and burgeoning market. Ford followed the leader behind Volkswagen in 1978 with the Lincoln Versailles.
GM was hot on their heels for their 1981 releases. And pretty soon after that the vast majority of major manufacturers featured some form of computerized, circuit board based control aboard their vehicles.
Today, there are far more than ignition and fuel injection systems that are computer-controlled on cars, and the idea of making any automobile without them is laughably quaint.
Love them or hate them, computers have undeniably made our vehicles more capable, more reliable and less dependent upon tune-ups since sophisticated electronic controls adjust all sorts of drivetrain variables on the fly.
Types of Computers
Nowadays, vehicles are run by a series of complex electronics that form computers designed to run different aspects of each system.
This consists of a series of sensors and modules that adjust parameters to keep the vehicle running smoothly. The electrical system was sometimes difficult to repair, especially when electronic carburetors were experimented with.
Ignition Control Modules
A gas shortage during the late 1970s caused manufacturers to become innovative in using computers. They installed small solid-state chips that would monitor ignition timing and the spark response. It turned out that the future of computer-controlled systems was heading the way of fuel injection.
During the early 1980s and through to the middle, car manufacturers were changing all of their vehicles to an integrated electronics-controlled controlled fuel injection system.
Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI)
Since the computers worked so well at measuring the correct fuel mixture, fuel injection was the perfect match for it. Fuel injected systems were replacing the old mechanical fuel injection because the inherent issues could be fixed using the advances in computer technology.
By the 1990s an on-board computer ran the majority of the vehicle’s systems. They have a handy interface that automakers have programmed troubleshooting codes into. The latest code readers even work with smartphones, and using the internet, give you tips on fixing the problem.
Engine Control Modules (ECM or ECU)
The ECM is what controls the various aspects of your engine and main systems. This can include things like transmission control, emissions diagnostics, airbags, navigation systems, anti-lock brakes, and various other things relating to the engine or vehicle.
A dissenter might make the argument that a couple of vehicles beat even Volkswagen to the market with proper computer control (or at least transistor control) on their vehicles, both featuring the absolute disaster that was “Electrojector” fuel injection: AMC’s 1957 Rambler and various makes and models of Chrysler 1958 lineup.
The reason these might be technically called contenders for the crown of first computerized consumer car is that they technically did not make it to market at all. The Electrojector system was so awful that AMC did not equip any of the 1957 Ramblers with it after building a handful of pre-production demonstrators.
Chrysler’s model-year lineup in 1958 fared only a little better, with less than 40 vehicles featuring the doomed system being built.
The reason so few were produced is that Chrysler figured out with great rapidity just how bad the system was and all of the cars built with Electrojector fuel injection had them ripped out and replaced with traditional carburetors.
So AMC’s claim is dubious, but Chrysler could potentially take the crown since the cars they built with the system were eventually sold to the public.
Considering that one was never even ready for primetime with the Electrojector system in place, and the others were made in such pitiful numbers and subsequently retrofitted with older carburetor technology, both have highly shaky cases.
I will leave the car cognoscenti among the readers to argue this to their heart’s content, but for my own part I will make my stand with Volkswagen’s 1968 Type III since it was the first viable, long-term production Consumer Car that had any meaningful penetration and presence in the market.
Other examples of electronic computer control technology were present on vehicles prior to its introduction, but none had the initial or sustained impact on automotive design and equipment like it did.
Frequently Asked Questions
Cars started using computers during 1974-1975 fuel shortages started happening and manufacturers realized that economy was better than power.
Most cars from the early 1970s back had a limited amount of computers, mainly for ignition and emissions. The 1973/74 VW Beetle is a great example of a vehicle that has limited computers.
They can be found in a number of places. Cars can have it under the hood, by the passenger wheel well, or under the passenger seat. Sometimes you can find them at the bottom of your windshield, underneath where the wipers are located.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.