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Autotrader’s 20th Anniversary: Top Car Tech of 1997

Can you imagine a world without Google? Or a life sans Facebook, Instagram or Twitter? Neither can we. But a mere 20 years ago, the internet as we know it was in its infancy. Today, we can’t fathom a life without email, smartphones and hashtags. And in our cars, we would be helpless without navigation systems, Bluetooth streaming stereos and backup cameras.

So, to celebrate Autotrader’s 20th anniversary, here’s a round-up of the top car tech of 1997. Our Luddite lives, they were a changin’:


Along with GM’s OnStar, Ford’s RESCU (Remote Emergency Satellite Cellular Unit) was a revolutionary in-car communications system that would allow the driver to summon help for mechanical car issues or medical problems. Never heard of RESCU? You’re not alone. While OnStar continues and is now the very thing that gets 4G Wi-Fi in your new Chevy or Buick in addition to providing directions and other services, RESCU is long gone. Ford now has SYNC, which is a much more robust and flexible system.

Toyota’s Monet Net

Long before the Garmin Nuvi and other stand-alone navigation systems were all the rage (let alone the built-in nav systems of today), Toyota was wiring its customers in Japan with Monet Net. In late 1997, the company offered in-car connectivity that allowed drivers to check email, daily news and connect to their home-based personal computers for a pretty cheap price (about $6 per month). The option was overhauled in 2002 when Monet shifted to GAZOO Media Service.

Daimler-Benz’s “Internet on Wheels” Technology

Before it was DaimlerChrysler (1998-2007) and Daimler AG (2007-present), this German manufacturer was Daimler-Benz. In the mid-90’s, its research and technology division introduced technology to link cars to the internet.

Hailed as the “Cyber Mercedes,” it integrated the web, wireless connectivity and other advanced technologies (by 1997 standards) like speech recognition to demonstrate “some of the possibilities for bringing the computing and communications revolution into a mobile environment while, at the same time, optimizing driver and passenger safety,” according to a press release at the time.

Much like current screen technology, the driver and front passenger shared a multi-media computer screen for web-based services in the center of the dashboard. The company said it hoped to include traffic conditions and “dynamic navigation services” in the future.

Folks in the backseat got in on the multimedia fun, too. Screens were embedded in the backs of the front head restraints, and passengers used handheld controls and wireless keyboards to access video games, the web, navigational services (for those backseat drivers we all love) and office applications. Built-in infrared transceivers allowed passengers to sync their handheld personal computers (as in, your PalmPilot) into the car’s embedded system.

Mercedes PTS Parktronic System

Those of us with aversions to parallel parking and super-tight parking lot spots would have loved some tech help back in the day. But alas, parking assist functions were absent in the early 90s. That changed when Mercedes unveiled its Parktronic System (PTS). With the help of ultrasound signals that were reflected by obstacles, this system calculated the distance between vehicle and obstacle, and, with a basic light and sound alert, let the driver know what to look out for. The system works very much the same way today, with a ton more bells and whistles, like automatic steering and braking interventions.

Toyota Prius

We can’t talk about car tech without talking about Toyota. Specifically, it’s hybrid honey, the Prius. In 1997, the company adopted a combustion engine and electric motor hybrid system to create the world’s first mass-produced hybrid passenger car. Its name is Latin in origin, for “prior to,” and it was created as a predecessor to future vehicles, incorporating innovative hybrid technology capable of being used with gasoline as well as other fuels. The Prius went on to become a huge success, with four generations of the car powering drivers all over the world. Toyota now sells 33 different hybrid models in more than 90 countries and regions across the globe.

The other tech that rocked 97? Computers, music and an egg-shaped pet.

Mighty Microsoft

1997 was a titanic year for the tech giant: it released Office 97, invested $1 billion in Comcast, laid out a product agreement with Apple and released Internet Explorer 4.0. Oh, and it also became the world’s most valuable company at a whopping $261 billion dollars. The company crammed a lot into 365 days.

MP3s? Yes, Please

In the late nineties, the music industry was on the brink of undergoing a massive shift — one that would change how people bought — and listened to — music. One of the biggest breakthroughs came in 1997, when launched (Mazda even named a car after the venerable MP3). It instantly became a way to find free and inexpensive music, and soon, artists and music industry brass were scrambling to close Pandora’s box. It never shut, and Napster and iTunes were right around the corner, forcing music industry brass to (reluctantly) embrace the digital revolution.

Gotta Get Me Tamagochi

Like the Pet Rock craze of the mid-70’s, the Tamagotchi — a virtual pet on a key chain first popularized in Japan — was the must-have pet of the year. Its name comes from the Japanese word “tamago” which means “egg” and the English word “watch”. Folks snatched up these little cuties in droves, and spent time feeding it (thanks to the push of a button), playing games or cleaning up its Tama trash.

Our world has changed a lot in 20 years. I’m sure we’ll spend the next two decades tagging, Insta-ing and geofiltering the technology that continues to color our lives.


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