Cars can mean a lot of different things to different people. Over time, they’ve been thought of as everything from horseless carriages to hot rods, and now we’re starting to think of them as smart, connected, and even someday, autonomous ways to get around.
Yet another way to consider the automobile is to think of it as a platform for technology. Each step of the car’s evolution has represented the potential for remarkable moments among engineers and innovators.
Taking a step back, it’s easy appreciate just how many times and ways this has happened within the auto industry. The following milestones in the timeline help tell this story — these are automotive inventions that truly moved the world forward.
1908 – Model T
Ford motors releases the Model T to the public. The mass-produced commercial auto becomes the technological starting point for the car as not only a thing people could go out and buy, but also as a medium for new ideas with which future developers could work.
1911 – Electric Starters
Starting your car gets a lot easier — and safer. The cumbersome cranks that once fired up an engine actually killed a motorist, back in 1910. A year later, the electric ignition debuts, and coupled with a self-starter it eliminates the problem.
1925 – Cigarette Lighter
We tend to approach these as DC outlets for electronics in our cars, now, but back in 1925 the first versions of lighter units allow motorists to sit back and fill their cabins with second-hand smoke.
1929 – Four-Wheel Brakes
Making it easier to stop safely comes in fits and starts throughout the 1920s. But by the end of the decade, some 99% of automobiles worked with brakes on each wheel. It’s a humble precursor to the anti-lock braking systems that would revolutionize stopping power later in the century, but it was still a big leap forward at the time.
1930 – Car Radio
For a mere $130 (in 1930s dollars) you can now receive radio broadcasts in the comfort of your coupe. This is understandably a big deal for the automobile owner, and will fuel late-night parking for generations of teenagers to come.
1934 – Coil Spring Suspension
Shimmying wheels and rough road conditions put more than one car into a ditch because of lousy suspension. Independent coil spring suspension comes into its own in ’34 — first in the front, later for the back wheels, too. The improved handling saves aggravation and lives.
1949 – Up, Up (and Away)
A decade of automotive optimism hits a momentary high with the creation of the world’s first flying car. The Aerocar never really took off (obviously) but one did recently appear on the market. The price tag? A lofty $1 million.
1956 – Power Steering
An invention on the drawing boards of carmakers for decades, power steering finally becomes a common feature in the post-War autos of the ’50s. By the decade’s end, one in four drivers are making turns with the help of hydraulics.
1965 – 8 Track!
The world now gets to bring its music along for the ride. We probably think more fondly of the 8-track these days — not everyone loved it in the ’60s and ’70s — but it sets the stage for the next important sound addition to autos: The cassette deck.
1969: 3-Speed Automatic Transmission
Automatic transmissions had already been through a number of iterations, marked by a long pause in development during World War II. As the demand for them rose in the 1950s, however, and the ways they worked became simpler and more powerful, the three-speed truly automatic transmission comes into its own. By the end of the ’60s, it’s a standard inclusion in many makes and models. Also, in a small victory for beleaguered mammals, manufacturers stop using whale oil in the transmission fluid.
1970 – Cassette Decks
As Car & Driver points out, the dashboard decks that start to appear at the top of the decade open the door to a two-word phenomenon that’s fuels many a late-night drive: mix tapes.
1973 – Catalytic Converter
We could all breath a little easier. The first production catalytic converter is introduced, scrubbing tailpipe emissions and making getting around a somewhat cleaner proposition. Thanks to new federal regulations, adoption of the devices is well underway by the mid ’70s.
1982 – Electronic Fuel Injection
For most of the auto’s history there isn’t a truly standard approach to how the vehicle mixes air and fuel to get the most out of its engines. Lots of iterations, differing results. But sensors and microprocessors change the playing field, starting in the early ’80s, and automotive design begins to set a new baseline for the process.
1984 – Air Bags
There’s a common thread throughout the history of autos. Inventions seldom take root right away, and they happen in numerous ways and places, overlapping. After many tries, by 1984 manufacturers are figuring out cost-effective and safe ways to deploy airbags. They start to become standard features for the first time.
1985 – In-Dash Disc Players
CDs will eventually replace cassettes. Luxury-car makers figure this out early on. The first CD players in cars begin popping up, mid-decade.
1994 – On-Board Diagnostics
On-board computer assisted diagnostics have been a thing for some time, but starting in about ’94, the 16-pin connector that garage mechanics will come to know so well begin to appear more and more frequently under the dash.
1995 – Navigation Systems
It will take an act of a President, in 2000, to make mostly reliable GPS navigation possible for drivers, but the first system actually appears a half-decade before that point. Later, once the satellite information that fuels electronic-nav systems is unscrambled, by Presidential order, manufacturers and developers go to work. By the mid-2000s, portable and in-car equipment becomes more or less the norm.
2000 – Hybrid Cars
Changing the fuel that cars use in the first place could be one of the most profound potential steps in automotive evolution. Hybrid electric vehicles get their first mass-production shot at the turn of the century. While there are still challenges ahead, it doesn’t yet look like they’ll go away.
2000–2010s – Connected and ‘Smart’ Cars
Contemporary autos can pack the computing power of 20 PCs, and they’re rapidly evolving into even more powerful manifestations of the Internet. In the coming decade, your auto may well be just another component of a fully connected consumer experience. Optimizing their own performance and maintenance is one thing, but the potential to move into a realm where cars navigate, brake, avoid collisions and hazards on their own — basically become autonomous on a number of levels — is no longer a subject for science fiction alone.
And so, the car has been a nexus for invention after invention, and there’s no sign that’s about to stop. Such a rich history of engineers, of solutions to problems that keep us safer and get us places in ever increasing style. If you look at what’s happening, when it comes to the cutting edge of automotive technology, it’s safe to say that car tech is poised to shift into even higher gear. The road is long and it’s still wide open. Enjoy the ride!