Some forty years in the making, start-stop technology has arrived on your smartphone. Volkswagen launched an app that stops YouTube videos automatically when you look away from the screen. And it starts again, when you look back. The app uses facial recognition technology to capture when the viewer is looking away, only to resume when eyeballs are back on screen. PWHS (People With Heightened Sensitivities) will not like it: Averting your eyes during a shocking scene on YouTube won’t help anymore. The price of progress, I guess.
But what are the origins of this startling technology?
Start-stop technology has come a long, long, very long way. One of, maybe the first start-stop systems was invented by Toyota. In October 1974, the first oil crisis was in full swing, Bob Dunham reported in Popular Science and from Tokyo that “Toyota has developed an automatic engine stop-start system that is likely to become available as an option if fuel shortages continue.” The system would shut off the ignition if the car would be stopped for longer than 1.5 seconds. It was available on a six cylinder Toyota Crown, where it would “restart when the driver pushed out the clutch.” Four decades ago, the system gave the writer “10-percent better fuel economy,” along with a reduction of CO2 emissions, which “are highest when the engine is idling.”
In 1979, there was a second oil crisis. This one looked like it was here to stay. Volkswagen introduced a start-stop system in the early 80s, on the Volkswagen Santana and its sibling, the Passat. Volkswagen insisted on calling it a “Stop-Start-Anlage (SSA),” because first it stops the car, then it starts. The discussion about what comes first, the start or the stop, rages on until today.
In the first iterations of the SSA, the engine had to be stopped with the push of a button. When gas and clutch were engaged, the engine did start. Later, it stopped automatically, like with the Toyota gizmo ten years before. The SSA did sound like a good idea, but it was rarely used. As a standalone option, it was nearly never ordered. Santana historian Tilman Grund thinks that by 1986, the SSA may have “existed only in the catalog.” People were scared to use it. The few that bought it did so as placebo sedative for the green conscience, but left it switched off. Not coincidentally, by 1986, oil prices were down to pre-1974 levels, and two golden decades of cheap black gold ensued, stunting the growth of the gizmo.
Zooming oil prices after the turn of the millennium, along with progress in electronics and mechanics, and the rising acceptance of hybrid systems helped the start-stop, stop-start, or idle stop systems become mainstream – despite its occasional critics. And now, it’s available on your phone. Where do you think the fortunes of the start-stop system and the futures of oil are going?