The History of the Personal Vehicle: Technological Innovations in Cars Over the Years

  • April 22, 2022
  • Ashvir Toor

The automobile industry has undergone hundreds of changes since its inception in the 19th century. The innovators of the 1860s who created the horseless carriage would undoubtedly be shocked by the luxury vehicles and SUVs driving us around today.

Early automobile manufacturing involved manual labor by factory workers on a line – a process pioneered by Henry Ford in his Detroit-area factories. Before the Great Depression in October 1929, the United States had made 90% of the world’s 32 million automobiles.

By 1980, Japan became the world’s leading manufacturer of automobiles. Robots began to replace human workers on the assembly line in 1960, and today, most cars are put together using automated machinery, while highly specialized engineers work on the latest models on the market.

Here are five of the biggest innovations in automobile history:

The Seatbelt

Seatbelts were originally a single 2-point waist belt – similar to the seatbelt on an airplane today. In 1946, neurologist C. Hunter Sheldon suggested the seatbelt as a protective safety device in cars, as he was treating a lot of patients with severe head trauma due to auto accidents. Initially, manufacturer Nash offered them as standard in 40,000 1949 cars – and customers complained and asked for them to be removed. In the 1950s, only 2% of Ford drivers opted for a seatbelt in their new car.

We have a little-known Volvo engineer to thank for the modern 3-point seatbelt and its efficacy. Dedicated to improving car safety due to personal loss, Nils Bolkin introduced the seatbelt in 1959 as standard in all new Volvos. To help get consumers on board with the new device that many found suffocating, Bolkin also proved their effectiveness with a study of motor vehicle accidents.[1]

While consumers were slow to come around to the safety device, state governments were not – with most enacting mandatory seatbelt laws throughout the 1970s. Today, it is estimated that seatbelts have saved 375,000 American lives since 1975.

The Turn Signal

The turn signal has been around in various iterations ever since drivers hit the road in large numbers. Having to contend with rail cars, pedestrians, and horse-drawn buggies meant a lot of different types of commuters on the road needed to figure out how to communicate with each other. Before automated turn signals were standard on cars, people relied on hand signs – which are still in use by bike riders today.

Early on, however, drivers and riders alike saw a need for a reliable and automated turn signal. Various ideas had been put forth or patented starting in 1909, but the turn signal as we know it today wasn’t introduced until 1939 by Buick.[2] Even then, turn signals were considered an add-on option for cars, and they didn’t become standard in vehicles until the 1960s. Turn signals are a vital part of safe driving on the road…be sure to always use yours!

The Gasoline-Powered Engine

People were moved to create better modes of transportation as far back as the 1700s – and the original cars were powered by steam, like locomotives. A steam engine car was an external combustion engine, where the fuel (usually kerosene) is consumed outside of the engine and the steam created powers the engine. The benefits to steam-powered engines were many: People were familiar with the technology and could easily use them, they had low emissions, and kerosene and water for the boiler component were inexpensive. Their drawbacks, however, were also many: The boiler and steam component could be very heavy, and the car would take around 30 minutes to start up, making them relatively inconvenient.[3]

The gas-powered engine was invented by Karl Benz in the late 19th century and soon took over sales of steam-powered engines. The benefits to the gas-powered engine were endless: The car started almost immediately, the car wasn’t as heavy, and the engine didn’t require as much care and maintenance as the steam-powered engine. With cheap gas prices for much of the twentieth century, pushback against the gas-powered car wouldn’t come until the late 1970s, when pollution and an oil crisis fueled the need for an alternative type of power. We wouldn’t get another innovation in car engines until Toyota introduced the Prius to Japan in 1997.

The Car Radio

If you think the debate over texting and driving was big, you’d be shocked by the backlash against the introduction of the car radio in the 1920s. Legislation was even drafted to ban the car radio, which was initially a $200, giant contraption with an antenna that covered the entire roof of the car, because people were terrified that it would cause accidents from distracted driving.

Motorola later introduced a sleeker design that required less machinery, and they argued that the car radio would alert drivers to inclement weather and dangers on the road, keep them awake when drowsy, and contribute to a safer overall driving experience. In the 1940s, buttons and dials were introduced so that drivers wouldn’t have to take their eyes off the road to adjust the radio. By 1963, in-car radios were standard, and over a third of radio listening was done from the car.[4]

The Car Alarm

The first recorded auto theft was in 1897, when a German baron had his Peugeot stolen by his mechanic. An automobile enthusiast, the baron set out to create a car alarm that would prevent another one of his precious cars from being stolen. He sketched out several different ideas, but didn’t experiment with much. In 1918, two men from Oregon invented an anti-theft device that was similar to a padlock. Only the driver could unlock it, and the driver could change the combination key that would unlock the device every time they started the car.

The first car alarm as we understand it today was introduced as an aftermarket device in 1956. An alarm would sound if the master switch wasn’t deactivated prior to opening the car. In the 1970s, Chevrolet started to offer car alarms as standard in all of its Corvettes, and today alarms are factory standard in all cars brought to market.[5]

That being said…when was the last time you reacted to a car alarm going off? Data suggests that car alarms are no longer the anti-theft device they were once intended to be, and tracking systems like LoJack and OnStar are more effective at recovering a stolen vehicle.

What has been your favorite car innovation in the last 100 years? A backup camera? Bluetooth? Automated GPS? What will be the coolest innovation in travel in the next 100 years? Flying cars are getting approval from the FAA and European Aviation Safety Agency now – will road gridlock soon become a thing of the past?