technological breakthroughs in automotive history

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Greatest Technological Breakthroughs in Automotive History

Ever since the start of the Industrial Revolution, technology has changed daily life at an ever-increasing pace. The same is true in the automotive industry; from their humble beginnings as slow, impractical alternatives to carriages that only the wealthy could afford, cars have become sophisticated technological wonders that are a common sight on today’s streets.

The history of automotive technology is long and fascinating, and understanding this history will give you a greater appreciation for the current state of the industry. Here’s a timeline of the greatest technological breakthroughs that made the car what it is today.

1873: In the Beginning There Was Steam Power

Near the end of the 18th century, the development of steam engines transformed industry and transportation. In 1768, the first steam-powered vehicle was designed and built, though the original design was impractical; an improved steam carriage was designed by William Murdoch in 1784. Although these first steam-powered vehicles didn’t catch on with the general public, several important technologies were developed to support them, including hand brakes, transmission systems and steering systems.

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The first steam-powered vehicles raised considerable fear among the general population; in Great Britain, laws were passed mandating that a man carrying a red flag and blowing a horn precede every vehicle.

These laws discouraged further development of the automobile, and British engineers of the time redirected their energy towards the development of steam-powered locomotives. Luckily, this didn’t stifle development in other countries. In 1873, Frenchman Amédée Bollée developed what many considered to be the first true steam-powered automobile. Meanwhile, in the United States, several other inventors, including George B. Selden and Dr. J.W. Carhart, also developed similar vehicles in the 1870s.

1876: How Internal Combustion Changed the Landscape

An Otto four-stroke engine. Image courtesy of Popular Science Monthly Volume 18. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons. {{PD-1923}}

An Otto four-stroke engine. Image courtesy of Popular Science Monthly Volume 18. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons. {{PD-1923}}

The development of the four-stroke gasoline-powered internal combustion engine by Nikolaus Otto in 1876 paved the way for the future success of the automobile, as it offered more power than steam. During that time, other inventors also started testing their iterations of gasoline engines. In 1879, Karl Benz was granted a patent on a two-stroke gasoline engine, and he developed his own four-stroke engine in 1885. Soon thereafter, Gottlieb Daimler invented the supercharger, and Alfred Büchi invented the turbocharger. In 1896, Rudolf Diesel invented an alternative four-stroke engine that operated similarly to Otto’s engine. Incorporating this technology into cars made them faster and more powerful, but still expensive.

1908: The Affordable Car is Where It Really All Began

Commercial photo for an advertisement, published in 1910. Photographer: Shipler Commercial Photographers. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

Commercial photo for an advertisement, published in 1910. Photographer: Shipler Commercial Photographers. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

Early gasoline-powered cars were functional, but their production methods kept their prices beyond the reach of most consumers. In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T, forever changing the automotive industry. The Model T debuted at $825, equivalent to about $21,000 today, and featured a 20-horsepower engine and a three-speed manual transmission. The vehicle’s top speed was about 45 mph. Ford sold a record-breaking 10,700 units of the Model T in its first year alone, and the Model T remains on the list of the most sold cars of all time even now.

1911: No More Cranking: Electric Starters Make Life Easier

Before the development of the electric starter, drivers had to crank the engine by hand; this was inconvenient and sometimes even dangerous. In 1911, Charles Kettering developed the first electric starter and Cadillac was the first to make use of this innovation in 1912. The development of electric starters made vehicles safer, and it allowed car owners to easily start their own cars without getting out of their vehicles.

1913: Mass-Production and the Moving Assembly Line or How Car Production Became Efficient

Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford autos. Image via Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford autos. Image via Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

In 1913, Henry Ford introduced the concept of the moving assembly line for mass production, which made production considerably faster. Prior to this, vehicles were hand-made individually and every worker had to know every aspect of the vehicle. By specializing workers so that each of them performed a specific part of the production process, implementing machine tools and moving the car along the line, Ford was able to decrease the time it took to assemble a single vehicle by a factor of eight.

In its first full year in use, the assembly line allowed the Ford Motor Company to triple its annual production numbers while cutting per-unit costs in half.

The assembly line put the automobile into the hands of the average person, which made the streets more crowded. It wasn’t long before automakers realized that cars needed to become safer as well.

1922: Hydraulic Brakes Improve Stopping Power and Increase Safety

The introduction of hydraulic brakes was a step towards achieving increased safety, as it took less time for a car to come to a full stop. Starting in 1914, Fred Duesenberg began using hydraulic brakes on his racing cars; they made the leap to passenger cars in 1922, when their potential was finally recognized. In 1918, Martin Lougheed developed and patented a similar hydraulic braking system. These new systems gave drivers a massive increase in stopping power; before the development of these systems, automobile brakes relied on simple mechanical power.

1926: Power Steering Makes Driving Easier and More Enjoyable

Turning the wheels in early cars took real effort, and the larger and heavier the vehicle, the harder it was to steer. In 1926, Francis Wright David developed a power steering system, which linked the steering wheel to a hydraulic system to move the wheels. The system did make it easier for drivers to steer, but automakers didn’t adopt it because of its cost. However, the needs of the military during World War II spurred automakers to begin including power steering systems, and the first commercially available power steering system debuted in 1951 in the Chrysler Imperial. Other automakers decided to adopt the system as well, and today every car comes with power steering.

1925-1938: Where Are You Going? Flashing Turn Signals Make Life Easier

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

At the beginning, cars didn’t have turn signals and the streets would easily become hectic because of it. In 1925, Edgar Walz, Jr., developed and patented a flashing turn signal system. He tried marketing the system to major automakers, but none of them were interested. After his patent expired, however, Buick introduced a similar system in 1939: the Flash-Way Directional Signal. Pushing a switch on the shifter column would illuminate a light on the rear of the vehicle, signaling the driver’s intention to turn. Future improvements added a self-canceling mechanism and front-facing signals. Other automakers soon copied the idea, and aftermarket kits were produced for existing vehicles. With the introduction of these new signals, driving became safer and more convenient.

1939: Cool Driving: Air Conditioning

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Air conditioning made its automotive debut in 1939, with the Packard Motor Company being the first company that offered air conditioning systems in their vehicles. However, these early systems lacked many features, the most important one of which were dashboard controls. To disengage the system, drivers had to manually disconnect the compressor belt from the engine, and this was rather inconvenient. Luckily, automakers realized that quickly and Chrysler was the first to offer a dashboard-operated air conditioning system; their system as an option for the 1953 Imperial. In 1954, the Nash Ambassador became the first vehicle to offer a modern hood-mounted air conditioning system.

1939: Automatic Transmission Makes Rides Smoother

Back in the early days, all cars had stick shifts and gears were shifted manually by the driver. Auto manufacturers thought it would be a good idea to make this a bit more convenient, so General Motors introduced its Hydra-Matic automatic transmission in 1939, which used planetary gears and fluid coupling to automatically shift the transmission.

Fluid couplings smoothed the transition between gears and freed them from the need to use a mechanical clutch to control gear ratios. The introduction of automatic transmissions made driving more convenient, and since the car changed gears on its own, it also meant fewer distractions during driving.

1957: Electronic Fuel Injection for More Power

For years, vehicles used carburetors to deliver air and fuel to the engine cylinders. However, in 1957, Chrysler and the Bendix Corporation introduced the Electrojector system, the first electronically controlled fuel injection system. This system used electronic controls and fuel pumps to deliver fuel directly to the cylinders, but the technology of the day wasn’t able to support the system.

Chrysler sold the patents to Bosch, who continued development of the concept. In 1982, Bosch introduced the first fully digital fuel injection system. By precisely controlling the air and fuel delivered to the cylinders, fuel injection systems allowed automakers to improve power while simultaneously reducing emissions.

1959: Buckle Up for Safety

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Although seat belts had been around in some fashion since the late 19th century, they were not commonly used in automobiles. Early seat belts were regarded as uncomfortable, unwieldy and largely ineffective. Drivers didn’t trust the belts, and early attempts at marketing the safety benefits of seat belts actually backfired; for example, when Ford advertised the safety features of its cars in the mid-1950s, they saw their sales plummet.

However, in 1959, Volvo introduced the retractable 3-point seat belt, a system that is still in use today. This new belt was simple to use, comfortable to wear and effective at saving the lives of drivers and passengers. Drivers still needed convincing, however, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that seat belt use began to rise.

1971: Anti-Lock Brakes for More Control

In 1971, Chrysler and the Bendix Corporation added their Sure Brake anti-lock brake system to the Chrysler Imperial. This system used computerized control and hydraulic valves to prevent the vehicle from skidding while braking. The success of Chrysler’s system prompted other manufacturers to develop their own systems, including Ford, General Motors, Nissan and Toyota. The 1985 Ford Scorpio, introduced to the European market, was the first car to come standard with anti-lock brakes; its performance helped it to win the European Car of the Year award. After such a success, the rest of the industry started including anti-lock brakes a piece of standard safety equipment. In 1988, anti-lock brakes began to be offered on motorcycles as well.

1987: Electronic Stability Control Makes Braking Safer

In 1987, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Toyota introduced the first electronic stability control systems. These systems applied braking or power to individual wheels during turns to help reduce skidding, especially in wet conditions. Mercedes-Benz spent the next five years working with Bosch to improve the system, and BMW made the feature standard on all its vehicles in 1992. In 1997, GM’s StabiliTrack system was offered on several Cadillac vehicles, making these the first U.S. cars to offer the feature.

1988: Airbags Had a Long Journey to Success

Photo by Stahlkocher on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 / GNU FDL 1.2.

Photo by Stahlkocher on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 / GNU FDL 1.2.

Although airbags had been considered for decades, it wasn’t until 1988 that they started becoming standard equipment. Earlier development had several issues, the most crippling one being the inability to inflate fast enough. Several breakthroughs in the development made them a viable option after many trial and error runs. Chrysler began including driver-side airbags as a standard safety feature in several high-production vehicles in 1988, and the following year they became standard features in all Chrysler vehicles. As technology improved, drivers realized their potential and began to clamor for more airbags; today, many vehicles include driver-side airbags, passenger-side airbags, side-impact airbags and more.

1990: The End of Directions: GPS and Navigation

Before the dawn of GPS navigation, nobody risked going in an unfamiliar direction without a map in their side compartment. In 1990, Mazda introduced a GPS system for the Eunos Cosmo, the company’s flagship vehicle in the Japanese market. By matching location data from the new GPS satellites to on-board maps, the Cosmo was able to pinpoint the driver’s location to within a few feet. In 1995, Oldsmobile introduced its GuideStar system to US production cars.

Over the next few years, GPS navigation systems became increasingly popular; they freed drivers from the tyranny of paper maps and roadside directions. With a navigation system, drivers could find their destinations regardless of their familiarity with the local area.

Since the 1990s, automotive technology has continued to improve. Fuel efficiency and environmental impact have become major areas of innovation, and driver assistance technologies have made driverless cars a real possibility. We’ve covered the greatest new technologies already, so check it out and learn what new features await us.


Which invention do you feel is the most important?

Are there other technologies that should be on this list?

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