Posted Tuesday, Aug 11, 2020
Author: Benjamin Rangel
When you think of the very first car, what do you imagine? Maybe a foot-powered stone vehicle driven by Fred Flintstone? Or perhaps a buggy with thin large tires?
The Evolution of Automotive Technology starts with the first cars were steam and electricity-powered dating from the 1700s to about the 1890s. You may be surprised to find electric vehicles aren’t a new concept. You may also be surprised to learn the first vehicles were developed in the late 1700s.
Those first “vehicles” were built on steam power. It was an energy source that had been used for many years to power trains. However, it wasn’t until the 1870s that steam power became more practical for small vehicles. Despite improvements, there were still a lot of shortcomings. Steam-powered cars took a very long time to start up, and the range was limited.
In the early 1800s, inventors around the world began working on creating electric-powered buggies. It was only a few decades later inventors in England and France created vehicles that were much closer to modern-day EVs. In 1890, William Morrison built the first electric car in the U.S., which had a top speed of 14 miles per hour and fit six people. Although it was simplistic in its design, the motorized vehicle received a lot of buzz from the American population and started the road to purchasing cars in America.
Within 10 years, a third of the vehicles in the U.S. were electric. Electric vehicles were popular because they weren’t as challenging to start as steam and gas combustion engines, and the operation didn’t involve difficult gear shifts. Like today, the first EVs were quiet and didn’t emit smelly air pollution.
Karl Benz in 1885 who invented the first gas-powered car, which he later received a patent for in 1886. Benz’s first car had three wheels, appeared to be a long tricycle, and sat two people. It was not until 1891 that the four-wheeled gas-powered cars were introduced.
Meanwhile, in 1898, Ferdinand Porsche did something revolutionary. He created the first hybrid vehicle that was powered by electricity and gas. It was a blueprint for the hybrids that would be built more than 100 years later.
Standard items we take for granted today were not included in the first cars, such as windshields, doors, turn signals, or even steering wheel. Of course, this is a far cry from what we’ve become accustomed to today. It can be said that Karl Benz’s first gas-powered car was the catalyst for the production of modern automobiles.
It wasn’t until Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T that automobiles started to resemble what we’re familiar with today. Thanks to Ford and their creation of the assembly line, the gas-powered Model T was mass-produced. This made the model very affordable for the general population.
Ford had been working with Thomas Edison to create a better battery for electric vehicles, but the success of the affordable Model T halted progress. Another factor was the invention of the electric starter in 1912. It eliminated the need for hand-crank gas-powered vehicles. Once oil was discovered in Texas and gasoline became cheap, gas-powered vehicle sales began to surge.
Today the opposite is true. The high cost of gasoline and pollution concerns have helped electric vehicles make a comeback. If he were alive today, Edison would be over the moon to know that the latest EVs have batteries that will go up to 400+ miles.
With the creation of mass production came new features, some of the first automotive technology being speedometers, seatbelts, windshields, and rearview mirrors. Believe it or not, the first turn signals weren’t added to a car until 1939. Then cars started to get fancy, with power steering (1951), cruise control (1957), three-point seatbelts (1959), and heated seats (1966).
In 1973, Oldsmobile installed the first passenger airbag into their “Tornado” model. More than 20 years later, in 1998, the federal government required all passenger vehicles to come to standard with dual frontal airbags.
In the late 80’s and early ’90s, keyless entry systems, electric doors and windows, sunroofs, and CD players began to be standard features. This is about the time when automotive technology became a big selling point.
This brings us to modern-day cars with Bluetooth, hard drives, advanced safety systems, GPS, WiFi, and even the ability to parallel park themselves. It seems crazy, but it’s true. In this age, cars come standard with features that were once a luxury. Driverless cars that once seemed like something out of a science fiction film are close to becoming a reality. It’s incredible to think how far cars have come and where the automotive technology will lead us down the road.
We know not what the future holds. Engineers in the automotive industry are striving for a brighter future; the creature comforts of today will be a thing of the past in no time at all.
(P.S. Still waiting for my flying car. Yeah, that's right! I am talking to you Back to the Future 2)