In 1886, human transportation underwent a paradigm shift, as the first car powered by an internal combustion engine was put into production by Karl Benz in Germany. Since that day, the car has undergone a process of continual evolution, transforming the horseless carriages of the 1800s into the sleek, fast and reliable vehicles we drive today.
Here are the five inventions that changed driving forever.
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The internal combustion engine
While Karl Benz is credited with inventing the modern motor car, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen was the culmination of many attempts to build self-powered vehicles. Prior to Benz’s invention, a variety of different vehicles had been built and tested, relying on steam, coal and even electricity for propulsion. While these vehicles could travel small distances under power, they were inefficient or impractical. The invention that changed the game was the internal combustion engine, which Benz developed to the point where it could efficiently propel a vehicle for extended periods of time.
The first motor vehicle death predates the inventions of Karl Benz. It occurred in Ireland in 1869, when Mary Ward was thrown from an experimental steam car as it turned a corner, crushing her beneath the wheels. It took another 16 years before any restraints found their way into cars, with Edward J. Claghorn of New York designing the first basic seatbelt in 1885. In 1958 Volvo hired Nils Bohlin, who had previously designed ejector seats for SAAB fighter jets, to design a more effective seatbelt. Volvo subsequently deployed the modern three-point seatbelt in its vehicles from 1959.
The first inflatable tyre was created in 1888 for a tricycle – specifically the tricycle belonging to Irishman John Boyd Dunlop’s son. Prior to this, the concept of a pneumatic tyre had been proposed without being applied to vehicles on a large scale. While the potential advantages of using inflatable tyres on cars were recognized long before 1911, it took until then for tyre technology to evolve to the point where inflatable tyres could successfully be used on cars. It was only in the 1930s that use of inflatable tyres on cars became commonplace, driven by improvements in tyre technology pioneered by France’s Michelin tyre company.
Antilock braking systems
Prior to the invention of antilock braking systems, hard braking could be a hazardous pursuit. Braking a car could easily result in the car’s wheels locking, which would cause loss of tyre traction and result in a driver losing control of their vehicle. Antilock braking systems found applications in aviation before the first practical antilock braking system was implemented in a mass production automobile in 1970. Ford pioneered this evolution in car safety, offering buyers of the Ford Lincoln the option of fitting a ‘Sure track’ ABS system to the rear wheels. A year later Chrysler introduced the first all-wheel ABS system, dubbed ‘Sure Brake’, as a standard feature on the Chrysler Imperial.
The first airbag patents were awarded in the early 1950s, with designs for inflatable airbags presented to American automobile manufacturers soon after these patents were awarded. However, issues with airbag design and reliability stalled the introduction of this technology in cars, and it was only in the early 1970s that manufacturers began to take airbag technology seriously, with Ford and Chrysler both pioneering airbag systems in their vehicles. Even then, the airbag was slow to catch on, with some car manufacturers actively opposing airbags. It was not until the early 1990s that airbags became on a common feature in new automobiles.
Telematics, or communications technology applied to cars, is arguably the biggest evolutionary leap in the car since the internal combustion engine was designed. This technology first entered cars as primitive car phone systems but has since evolved rapidly, driven by the evolution of the Internet and associated information technology. While telematics devices, like trackers and navigation systems, are commonplace in new vehicles, telematics is still in its infancy. Automatic driving assistance systems are in the early stages of mass deployment, and by 2040, the majority of new cars are expected to be self-driving vehicles.