10 Innovations That Changed Automotive Forever

by Aaron Turpen

Since the beginning of the automotive industry, largely credited to Karl Benz and his 1885 Patent Motorcar, things have progressed quickly. From early horseless carriages accompanied by piano and violin backdrops to modern computers on wheels heralded by electric guitars, the automotive industry has advanced considerably. Along the way, though, some very innovative changes came that would alter the course of cars and trucks forever. These changes, both large and small, have aided drive quality, safety, and efficiency in ways no other thing before them had.

So in honor of clickbait top ten lists everywhere, here’s our 10 picks for innovations that changed automotive forever.

Electric Start (1896, 1903, 1911)

Early vehicles were started using a variety of methods, most of which were unreliable, dangerous, or painstaking. Often all of those things. Imagine if we still started cars with gunpowder cylinders or by cranking a big handle that could kick back and break a thumb or wrist.

Thanks to an 1896 invention by engineer H.J. Dowsing and its perfection by inventor Clyde J. Coleman in 1903, the electric starter took over for the other less reliable methods of starting an automobile’s engine. Further perfected by Charles F. Kettering in 1911, the electric starter as we know it became the standard in automotive shortly afterwards.

Safety Glass (1919)

Safety glass was invented long before cars were, but they didn’t make their way into automotive until after cars were already becoming common. Although the Tucker Car Company played with the idea of safety glass as an option, the idea didn’t really catch on until Henry Ford mandated safety glass-based windshields, constructed very much like what’s used today, in all his products, starting in 1919.

The mandate came after a failed lawsuit against Ford claimed the serious injuries in an accident were the fault of the shattered windscreen on the Model T involved. Ford took the question of safety seriously and quickly figured out how to incorporate a relatively new French invention that would laminate sheets of glass together to make them fracture instead of shatter.

Unibody Construction (1922)

Also called “monocoque” construction, unibody framing would eventually dramatically change automotive design. Conventional vehicles used a body-on-frame design with a ladder-style frame. As the name implies, the body of the vehicle sat atop the frame, creating two separate structures for the car. Today’s pickup trucks and many truck-based SUVs still use this design. Most vehicles today, however, are unibody instead.

Citroen Traction Avant unibody drawing.

Unibody construction, introduced in 1922 with the Lancia Lambda in Europe, and popularized by Citroen as the unitized body frame for the Traction Avant and other cars, took a while to catch on. Although unibody designs had clear safety and weight savings, they were relatively complex and expensive compared to the body-on-frame convention.  Modern unibody design is based on designs introduced by Joseph Ledwinka and the Budd Company. As Budd continued to develop the design ideal, it began to catch on and by the 1970s, most vehicles smaller than pickup trucks were using unibody understructure.

Car Radio (1924)

Near and dear to us here at Drive Mode is the car radio. Until the advent of mobile radio, adding a radio receiver into a vehicle was not realistic. Plus, prior to the mid-1930s, most vehicles used a 6-volt electrical system, which was too under powered for the vacuum tubes of the period. In 1924, however, an Australian firm (Kelly’s Motors) figured it out and got one into a car. Six years later, an American company marketed a Motorola radio receiver for mobile use. The next year, Plymouth advertised a Philco Tansistone radio as standard equipment in its cars. By the end of the 1930s, AM radio was a standard feature in most automobiles.

In the 1950s, adding FM radio became an option, but it wasn’t a standard feature until late that decade and became the standard when cassette tapes and 8-tracks were introduced in the mid-1960s. When compact cassettes could compete with 8-tracks in quality and length, they supplanted them only to be supplanted by compact discs a couple of decades later.

Now we’re seeing the CD replaced by streaming audio and satellite radio. Welcome to the Jungle!

The Automatic Transmission (1939)

The idea of an automatic transmission is very old. Ancient designs from the Greeks and Chinese had automated gearing, of sorts, used for all kinds of things. Usually made of wood. With the advent of the automobile, though, automatic transmissions for more modern engines took a while to become reality.

An early method was introduced in 1904 by the Sturtevant brothers in Massachusetts, made for horseless carriages as a ratio changer to shift between two gears as the vehicle gained speed. The abrupt changes and the weak iron-heavy metals used, however, made the transmission unreliable and clunky and it wasn’t used much. The first automatic transmission used in a production vehicle didn’t come until 1939 with Oldmobile’s Hydra-Matic system. A similar idea was in development at Chrysler at the time, called the Fluid Drive. They key innovation was in the fluid-driven coupling. Today, most automatic transmissions utilize a torque converter for that coupling. Though the geared automatic transmission is now seeing itself being replaced by the continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Power Steering (1951)

The idea of power-assist to the steering wheel has been around since automotive began. Back in the 1870s, it was tried briefly, but it didn’t catch on. In 1903, an electric-assist motor was added to the steering of a Columbia 5-ton truck. Several patents for power steering or power-assist steering were filed throughout the early 1900s as well. Although the idea was most persistent in heavy machinery and trucks, it wasn’t until 1951, after the war effort had pushed power steering systems along for military machines, that power steering became a viable option for passenger cars. Chrysler put one in the Imperial in that year and the rest is history.

While largely unsung, power steering has probably done more to save lives on the road than any other single technology save the seat belt. It goes basically unnoticed in most automobiles today and has been ubiquitous since the 1970s. So this unsung hero deserves some respect.

Cruise Control (1958)

Known by various names in various locales since its inception, cruise control is what helps make the tedium of long highway driving a little less onerous. Several vehicles offered simple cruise control systems in the early days of automotive, but those were mostly engine governors used to force the engine to stay at a given spin rate. Which would thus “force” a given speed in an auto. During World War II, when gasoline rationing was the norm, an engineer named Ralph Teetor came up with a way to allow drivers to pick a given speed and hold the vehicle (more or less) there. This tech improved during the war and shortly afterwards was introduced as the Speedostat in the 1958 Chrysler Imperial. Teetor licensed the setup to General Motors as well, who coined the name Cruise Control for it in the Cadillacs of the time.

At the same time, another engineer, Master Sergeant Frank J. Riley, filed a patent for a Constant Speed Regulator in 1955. Another inventor named Harold Exline also had a similar idea as a vacuum-powered unit. Soon Cadillac’s Cruise Control marketing took over and all similar ideas from varied manufacturers, including American Motors and Ford, began to be called “cruise control” in the public vernacular. The idea didn’t catch on in Europe for some time, a product of the differences in average drive lengths and speeds between the U.S. and the Eurosphere.

3-Point Seat Belt (1959)

Nils Bolin demonstrates his invention.

Seat belts have been around for a long time. Mostly in aircraft and fast vehicles. By the 1950s, lap belts were a common accessory in most vehicles globally, especially the United States. Yet they were rarely used. Lap belts were made standard by European automaker Saab in 1958, but the following year, Swedish automaker Volvo introduced what is now the standard in seat belts as the Nils Bohlin design. It appeared in all Volvo cars that year.

Of all of the automotive inventions of the past century and a half, none have had more safety implications for passengers and drivers than have seat belts. No single item can claim the sheer millions of lives saved as can the simple 3-point belt. (If you’re not getting the hint, it’s buckle up.)

Anti-Lock Braking System (1971, 1978)

The idea of ABS first appeared in rail and then aircraft as an anti-skid device. On trains, the idea was to improve downhill braking and reduce skid on the tracks while allowing brakes to keep cooler doing so. In aircraft, the goal was to improve slowing on the runway after landing and reduce skids and aircraft wobble while on the ground. By today’s standards, these pre-1950 attempts were crude, but somewhat effective for the large vehicles they were designed for.

Today’s anti-lock braking systems use computer control and regulation to improve traction control while also improving braking and safety. The first system similar to what we have today appeared on the 1971 Chrysler Imperial and worked in a way similar to what was used by the Concord aircraft. That same year, Ford made its own Sure-track ABS standard equipment on its Lincoln Continental cars and General Motors introduced Trackmaster rear-wheel anti-lock braking on its Cadillac and Oldsmobile models. Nissan also offered an ABS that year, using a system from Denso.

It wasn’t until 1978 (hence the second date) that Mercedes-Benz offered an ABS from Bosch on all four wheels of its W116 model.

The Airbag (1973)

Another aircraft-inspired technology, airbags were originally designed for a variety of purposes. The first automotive airbag patent was given in 1953 to John W. Hetrick alongside a simultaneous patent given to a German engineer named Walter Linderer. Neither worked well and neither was adopted by an automotive company for anything more than testing.

Today’s airbag systems are evolutions of a design from a Japanese engineer named Yasuzaburou Kobori, who patented an explosive airbag in 1964. When combined with the crash sensors invented by another inventor, Allen K. Reed, in 1967–after both systems had greatly evolved–they were eventually used by General Motors in early airbags sold in fleet models of the 1973 Impala. This became an option in other vehicles and, after lapsing due to lack of public interest, revived in the 1980s to finally became mandated in the 1990s.

Hit the Lights

As the immortal Metallica screamed to start off countless concerts: Hit the Lights! We’re done.

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