Actually, engineers in the auto industry did think about it earlier. Mercedes-Benz used it in their 300Sl Gullwing in the 1950s. It's been primarily used in diesel engines ever since. But most U.S. drivers are not familiar with diesel passengers cars.
How does it work?
The combustion engine works by mixing air and gasoline and shooting it into the combustion chamber. Gasoline needs air, otherwise it won't explode. And you need a series of controlled explosions to get the pistons on the engine moving, which is what ultimately moves your car.
Direct injection sprays gasoline directly into the combustion chamber, while air comes in through a valve nearby. That results in what engineering geeks call a "leaner" burning process. In other words, the engine needs less gas to make the same powerful bang that pushes the pistons.
And because the gas doesn't have to travel as far to get inside the combustion chamber, it's cooler. And cooler gas can be compressed tighter to create more power. Think of it as kind of a Jack-in-the-box: If you push that guy down in the box harder, when you let go, he'll bounce back harder and higher than normal.
Why would I want it?
Because it gives you fuel economy and power at the same time. When GM introduced the Cadillac CTS in 2008, it offered one 3.6-liter V6 engine with direct injection, and one with standard fuel injection. The direct injection engine got 304 horsepower and the standard got 263 horsepower. But both engines got the same 26 miles per gallon fuel economy. That's as easy a real-world explanation of the value of direct injection as we can think of.
Is there any downside?
It costs a couple hundred dollars more to put it under your hood, because it's a little more complex to manufacture and uses some more expensive parts. It also needs a more sophisticated computer system to manage the engine and flow of fuel, further adding to the cost.
Automakers probably won't pass that cost on to consumers, because they're under a lot of pressure to meet higher fuel economy standards in the next few years. But the engines could be more expensive to repair if anything goes wrong.
What vehicles offer it?
Audi and Buick offer it on their full lineup. Volkswagen markets its models with direct injection engines with the initials "TSI." Ford calls its direct injection engines "EcoBoost", and luxury models like BMW, Lexus, Mercedes and Porsche offer it on most of their models. Ferrari offers the technology on the $230,000 458 Italia if you can afford that.
Direct injection is a true win-win for the internal combustion engine, offering both greater power and improved fuel economy.