Automotive technology has evolved considerably over the past century. The 20th century saw cars become common civilian means of transport, and once mass production took off, new features were quickly added over the decades.
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These changes have been the most impactful in the automotive industry in the past 100 years.
the automatic transmission made cars much easier to drive and more appealing to the masses. It was invented in 1921 by a Canadian steam engineer but was not popularized in vehicles until 1940.
the Oldsmobile Series 90 Custom Cruiser The sedan was the first mass-produced mainstream car to feature an automatic transmission. It was a hit with the American public when it was launched and has been a staple in mainstream cars ever since.
Hydraulic steering was the first iteration of power steering, which today is mostly electric. This automotive technology has solved a particularly important problem for the automotive industry. As cars got bigger, heavier and more feature rich in the 20th century, they got harder to steer.
Power steering was the solution. Hydraulic power steering first hit the mainstream car market in 1951 with the Chrysler Imperial. It made cars more comfortable to drive, as well as safer and more manageable.
Many inventors, engineers, and automobile manufacturers experimented with four-wheel drive throughout the 20th century. However, the technology was not mastered until the mid-1900s when the United States requested all-terrain vehicle designs for World War II.
Arguably the most impactful vehicle to emerge from this design competition was the Willys-Overland MB, the ancestor of the modern Jeep. This car and other Willys-Overlands designed for the Allies during World War II revolutionized four-wheel drive, which quickly made its way into civilian vehicles after the war ended.
Seat belts were the first safety feature added to cars, but they didn’t become standard all at once. They started out as an option that could be added to vehicles and slowly grew in popularity until they eventually became part of government safety regulations in 1968.
By the time the first purchasable Mustang Entering the market in 1964, Ford included seat belts in most of its cars, including sports models. This trend slowly spread among the other major automakers of the time.
Built-in radios don’t necessarily increase the functionality or safety of cars, but they do make them more fun to drive. Automakers began adding radios to car control panels in the 1920s, and they quickly became a must-have feature.
Today, radio is being phased out in favor of Bluetooth, streaming and satellite. However, radio made it a cultural norm for listening to music in the car, which made long American drives a much more enjoyable experience.
Packard launched the first consumer car with air conditioning in 1940, pioneering a feature that will become standard by the end of the millennium. In 1969, more than half of all new vehicles sold in the United States were air-conditioned.
In fact, it was so popular that it was blamed for a drop in convertible sales in the 1970s. Today, it would be inconceivable for a new car to be launched without air conditioning.
Volkswagen first introduced the on-board diagnostic system in 1968, a big step forward in safety technology. It allowed drivers and technicians to easily diagnose engine problems, although it was not standardized until the 1980s.
Modern cars have computerized on-board diagnostic systems that use the ODII standardized code set. It became mandatory in all vehicles manufactured in the United States in 1996.
Electric cars have been around since the 1800s. However, they only became commercially viable at the end of the 20th century. The Toyota Prius was the first mass-produced hybrid electric carwhich paved the way for modern electric vehicle technology.
Today, electric vehicles are seen as the future of the automotive industry. Startup Tesla Motors boosted the popularity of electric vehicles in the United States during the 2010s. The Biden administration prioritized them, leading many major automakers to invest heavily in the technology.
Self-driving cars are the latest innovation in automotive technology. The invention of the automobile revolutionized the 20th century, and autonomous vehicles will do the same in the 21st century. Google pioneered this modern innovation by launching a secret research project in 2009following a 2005 DARPA challenge.
Since then, many other self-driving car companies and projects have been created. Many vehicles today include self-driving features, such as Tesla’s Autopilot. Fully autonomous models that can drive as well as a human aren’t quite ready yet, but likely will be within the next decade.
Automotive technology has come a long way in the last century. By the end of the next one, they might be unrecognizable from the classic Mustangs and Rolls-Royces of yore. Innovations evolve year after year, from advanced safety features to all-new powertrains. The ongoing movement in this industry shows how far machines have come and how central cars are to our society, our culture and our future.
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Last updated February 23, 2022.