Explore the history of car technology and how it has transformed the way we drive. We’ve put together a timeline showing the evolution of car tech, from the first car to ever be invented to a raft of post-war technology including safety features and electric systems.
We’ve mapped major developments, all the way to the digital revolution that’s currently changing the way we drive. Plus we round-up with some of the most exciting upcoming developments in car technology.
Austrian Karl Benz invented the first true automobile in the 19th century. It was powered by an internal combustion engine and had three wheels. Any previous attempts to invent cars used steam power - and didn’t have much success.
Ford’s Model T was the world’s first car produced by assembly line. This great leap in technology made the car much cheaper and therefore more widely affordable. Its 20 horsepower petrol engine could reach speeds of 45mph, which was still slower than the galloping horses of the day.
Electric ignition starters were invented to replace manual hand cranks and to start the engine with a button instead. Hand cranks were considered to be dangerous because the engine could jump as the car started, occasionally injuring the driver. The first electric starter was used on a Cadillac in 1912 and they were soon widely adopted.
Wireless cigarette lighters had a removable component that was heated by electricity. By 1925 they were standard in most American cars. Today cigarette lighters have fallen out of fashion, but we still have the sockets to plug in electric gadgets, like sat navs.
The first car stereo was created in 1930 in monophonic AM frequency. For the first time, driving could be set to music, though it would be another 22 years before the first radio capable of receiving FM frequency was added to a car, in 1952.
Many carmakers began looking at ways to make driving more comfortable, and they landed on coil spring suspension. Each wheel (initially just the front two) was given its own metal coil spring, which compresses itself to absorb the shock you feel when driving over bumps in the road. This made for a much smoother, relaxing ride.
Looking for a better way to get the car running, Chrysler invented a technology to start both the electric starter and the ignition. It placed this power inside a key and soon everyone was using one.
Power steering technology uses hydraulic power to amplify the pressure on the wheels as you as you turn the steering wheel, saving you so much elbow grease. Power steering first appeared on a Chrysler Imperial and then in a Cadillac a year later.
The Chrysler Imperial was the first production car to have air conditioning as an option. It came with three settings: low, medium and high. The following year, the Nash “Integrated” system offered front end heating, ventilation and air conditioning, making driving a much more pleasurable experience in the summer.
Cruise control is a system developed to allow the driver to maintain a constant speed without the use of the accelerator. The system made steady driving easier, especially on motorways. It was first used in another Chrysler Imperial and by 1960 it was a standard feature on all Cadillacs too.
The modern three-pin seatbelt was invented by Nils Bohlin, Volvo’s first safety engineer. Volvo decided to give away the patent to other carmakers for free, knowing it would save lives. It was compulsory for carmakers to fit seatbelts in the UK from 1965, but only compulsory to wear them in the front seats from 1983. Wearing a seatbelt became compulsory for all children from 1989 and for back seat passengers from 1991.
The smooth buzz of rolling down an electric window was originally only available on luxury models,and it was usually an optional extra on most cars until quite recently. But eventually winding down your car windows became a thing of the past.
Until this point, windscreen wipers had only had one speed, no matter the weather. Ford changed this to adjust the speed.
In the 1970s, carmakers began adding stereos that could play the latest cassette tape technology. Now drivers could blast out their favourite Led Zeppelin albums from their cars!
ABS or Anti-Lock Braking System, is a clever technology that stops the wheels locking up during sharp braking, preventing skidding. It was originally used on trains and Concorde aircraft, before being adapted for a Chrysler Imperial.
This technology was designed to clean up polluting exhaust fumes by reducing toxic emissions created by the engine. Catalytic converters became compulsory in petrol cars from 1993.
Move over analogue dials! The first digital dashboard display appeared in an Aston Martin Lagonda. It included trip computers, speed and temperature readings and fuel economy measures. However, digital dashboards weren’t that popular with drivers at the time, and most cars today still use an analogue speedometer alongside the digital displays.
Technology called CDX-1 became the first car CD player, eventually supplanting cassette tapes, which had become old technology.
Previous iterations of airbags were installed in US government cars from the 1970s, but in 1988 Chrysler introduced the first production airbag. Originally they were just for drivers, but today airbag technology can be placed all around the car to protect all passengers.
Electromagnetic parking sensors alert you to hazards when parking. They were “re-invented” from previous technology that hadn’t taken off in the 1970s.
Ford first created computer diagnostics for its factory line in the 1980s. But over time the built-in 16-pin connector became essential for all carmakers because it also gave garage mechanics access to key information about the car for repairs. On-board diagnostics connections became compulsory in America in 1996 and Europe in 2001.
General Motors launched connected cars with its OnStar system, which used your mobile phone to call 911 in an accident. Today the technology links with the phones’ GPS location to guide the emergency services straight to the car.
There were versions of GPS sat nav systems built in from the early 90s, but the US military added interference to the signals as they guarded the technology closely. In 2000, US President Bill Clinton ordered the military to stop scrambling GPS signals and open the technology up to everyone. Sat navs were quickly developed, though it was several more years before they were more accurate.
Adding a hybrid motor to a petrol engine was first dreamed up in the 19th century, but the idea was deemed unworkable. Toyota picked it up again at the turn of the century and invented the Prius, taking the world by storm. Today every carmaker is working on hybrid cars.
The first hands-free bluetooth kit appeared in 2001. Later that year, an even better bluetooth technology came out that worked with speech recognition. These days bluetooth is integrated with the cars’ infotainment system.
This technology has prevented many a reversing mishap. Little cameras stream live footage of the area behind the car as you reverse. The technology was first used outside of America in a Nissan Primera.
Toyota was first to launch this tech with its Intelligent Parking Assist that helped drivers parallel park. In 2006, Lexus added a self-parking system to the LS model. Automatic parking is now available on many new cars.
Dozens of automatic technology features have been developed to assist the driver. Common examples include, lane departure warnings, blind spot warnings, cross traffic alerts and headlamp high beam control.
Carmakers have also begun adding smartphone integration, with many producing apps so you can find your car via GPS, and remotely lock the car and check its fuel levels.
Elon Musk was the first to offer autopilot technology on the Model S. It’s the first commercially available driver assistance that can steer the car and even change lanes on the motorway.
This new technology can turn your car into a travelling 4G router, meaning passengers can use it to connect smart devices to the Internet.
2020 is the projected release date of Google’s self-driving car, the Waymo. It completed its first driverless ride on public roads in 2015 in Austin Texas with a blind man behind the wheel.
Forget touchscreen – carmakers are already working on making displays that respond to gesture control.
Sorry 1949, but one day car keys might be a thing of the past! Carmakers are working on technology to let you unlock and start your car with your fingerprint.
Soon all the information you need about the car could be displayed on smart glass in the windscreen.