The advent of the microcontroller changed just about everything. Modern gadgets often have a screen-based interface that may hide dozens or hundreds of functions that would have been impractical and confusing to do with separate buttons and controls. It also colors our thinking of what is possible. Imagine if cars didn’t have cruise control and someone asked you if it were possible. Of course. Monitor the speed and control the gas using a PID algorithm. Piece of cake, right? Except cruise control has been around since at least 1948. So how did pre-microcontroller cruise control work? Sure, in your modern car it might work just like you think. But how have we had seventy-plus years of driving automation?
A Little History
Controlling the speed of an engine is actually not a very new idea. In the early 1900s, flyball governors originally designed for steam engines could maintain a set speed. The idea was that faster rotation caused the balls would spread out, closing the fuel or air valve while slower speeds would let the balls get closer together and send more fuel or air into the engine.
The inventor of the modern cruise control was Ralph Teetor, a prolific inventor who lost his sight as a child. Legend has it that he was a passenger in a car with his lawyer driving and grew annoyed that the car would slow down when the driver was talking and speed up when he was listening. That was invented in 1948 and improved upon over the next few years.