The Epic History of Vehicles: From Steam Engines to Self Driven Cars

The automobile has forever transformed how people travel. It's hard to imagine a world without cars, buses, and trucks. In this installment of our series: The History Of, we look into the history of cars and the automotive industry journey over the last 3 centuries.

Life Before Automobiles

While vehicles have only been in existence for less than 200 years, their story begins all the way back in 3500 BC when the wheel was invented. 

The eventual creation of light round wheels connected with wooden spokes gave rise to the use of chariots by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans for their empire expansion endeavors.

However, for the next several thousands of years, the most advanced form of land transport was the horse-drawn carriage.

These included the stagecoaches designed to carry passengers to heavy wagons developed to haul industrial goods.

In fact, by the late middle ages, every great city was full of stables. 

For example, mid-nineteenth century London was home to over one million horses, and 1,000 tons of horse dung had to be cleared from the streets each day! 

But by the late 1800s, the idea of a self-powered car was slowly coming together and the days of the horse carriage seemed numbered.

horse drawn carriage in 19 century

Who Invented the First Car?

There is no simple answer to the question 'Who invented the automobile and when?' It has been a work in progress, with different parts like the engine, seats, and everything in between developed over the past several hundred years.

The European engineers who set out to make the first automobile had a big problem on their hands: how to squeeze the power of a galloping horse into a small, reliable engine. 

By building on each other's ideas, they were eventually able to make the first self-powered car.

  • In the late 17th century, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens had an idea for an engine that produced power by exploding gunpowder in a tube. Unfortunately, he was way ahead of his time. Engineering at the time wasn't advanced enough for him actually to build this machine.
  • In 1769, Frenchman Nicholas Joseph Cugnot used steam-engine technology (developed in the early 1700s) to make a three-wheeled tractor for pulling heavy army cannons. Many people consider this the world's first car. But it had a top speed of just 3mph and was extremely heavy and difficult to steer.
  • French-Belgian engineer Joseph Étienne Lenoir started his electricity experiments in the 1850s. He ignited some of the gas used in street lamps in a metal tin using an electric spark. His "spark plug" (as we now call it) made the gas explode with a surge of power that could push a piston. By repeating this process over and over, he created the first "gas engine". Nevertheless, the idea was quickly thrust aside, as gas wasn't practical as it could easily explode and kill people. 
  • Thousands of miles away, American Charles Goodyear was experimenting with natural rubber from the 1830s. But all attempts to make anything useful from rubber ended up in failure. This was until he accidentally discovered vulcanization (the process of hardening rubber) which made him the pioneer of car tires.
  • Self-taught German engineer Nikolaus Otto built on Lenoir's work. During the 1860s, he tinkered with various engine designs and, in 1876, came up with an efficient gasoline engine, which worked by methodically repeating the same steps as Lenoir's gas engines. This was the first template of the modern-day car engine.
  • German engineer Karl Benz studied Otto's work and was able to build a simpler gasoline engine of his own. He went a step further and attached it to a three-wheel carriage in 1885. This was essentially the world's first practical gas-powered car. In 1888, Benz named the vehicle "Benz Patent-Motorwagen" and began selling it, making it the first commercially available automobile in history. His wife Bertha, a fellow automotive pioneer, came up with the idea of adding extra gears for uphill driving. She also invented brake pads. 

karl benz

Henry Ford: Pioneer of Mass production of Cars in the US

There was just one major problem with the vehicles being produced by Karl Benz and other early European car manufacturers—they were too expensive and hardly anyone could afford them. 

1n 1996, American engineer Henry Ford set out to remedy this. 

It took him 12 years and countless experiments to get it right. But in 1908, he rolled out the  Model T – the first car which was affordable and easily accessible to most average income earners. 

The "Tin Lizzie," as the Model T was known, was an immediate success. Ford soon had more orders than the company could satisfy. 

He adapted to the growing demand by introducing new and revolutionary mass-production techniques that included large production plants and the world's first moving assembly line for cars.

By significantly cutting down on time required to produce an automobile, he was able to keep the costs low.

As time went on, Ford's Model T became cheaper to buy as the price dropped from $850 to $260. In the 19 years of the Model Ts production, 15 million units were sold!

Ford's Model T

Other automobile manufacturers like General Motors (established by Williams C. Durant in 1908) followed suit and began to flood the market with cheaper automobiles.

In fact, 80 percent of the cars sold in the US in the 20s and 30s were produced by the "Big Three" Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. 

European automakers did not begin to use mass-production techniques until the 1930s.

As a result, the American companies surpassed them and held a large share of the global car market.

In 1927, Henry Ford moved production to a massive industrial complex in Dearborn, Michigan.

This allowed him to bring all the necessary components of producing a car from start to finish under one roof. 

However, due to his unwillingness to make design changes to his Model T and subsequent Model A, people now preferred the larger, faster, smoother riding, more stylish cars from General Motors and Chrysler.

World War 2 and The Rise of Japanese Automakers  

During the Second World War, the production of private cars stopped as the government used manufacturing facilities to produce military vehicles and weapons. 

It was during this period, the first four-wheel drive, all-purpose vehicle was designed for the US Military. It came to be known as the Jeep

first ever military jeep

After the end of World War II, privatel car production resumed, but many American automakers were not able to keep up with the new safety regulations and changing market demands.  

To make matters worse, by 1966, American-made motor vehicles contributed more than 60 percent of the pollutants in the atmosphere throughout the country. 

This led to the imposition of federal standards of automotive safety (1966), emission of pollutants (1965 and 1970), and energy consumption (1975). 

However, the Big Three—GM, Ford, and Chrysler—were still not convinced that a large enough market existed for small cars.

As long as gasoline was abundant and cheap, they would continue to produce more powerful automobiles. 

When gasoline prices escalated following the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, the American automobile industry was woefully unprepared to meet the challenge of the fuel economy.

Americans turned to small Japanese and European cars, which were more fuel-efficient.

To survive, some American automakers had to partner with Japanese car companies, which had quickly adapted to the new consumer trends. 

For example, Chrysler began an engineering partnership with Mitsubishi Motors and began selling Mitsubishi vehicles branded as Dodge and Plymouth in North America in the 1980s.

This helped Japanese automakers to infiltrate the US markets with lower barriers of entry. By 1980, Japan became the world's leading auto producer, a position it continues to hold.

The 21st Century Technological Advancements 

By 2000, cars have existed for over a hundred years and almost a quarter way into the 21st-century automotive technological advancements are proving to be the greatest differentiation factor.

  • GPS sat navigation system, which was for nearly a decade a closely guarded US military secret, was finally incorporated into cars in the early 2000s.
  • Since 2010 dozens of automatic technology features have been developed to assist the driver. Examples include lane departure warnings, blind-spot warnings, cross-traffic alerts, rearview backup camera, smartphone integration, remote car lock and many more.
  • The first hands-free Bluetooth technology appeared in 2001. These days Bluetooth is integrated with almost all cars' infotainment systems.
  • Toyota invented the Prius, the world's first hybrid car, powered by both petrol and electric energy. Hybrid vehicles are now widespread since they offer a practical and affordable way to increase fuel efficiency while at the same time reducing emissions. Sales of electric vehicles (EV) have also been hitting new milestones for the past five years.

toyota prius first hybrid

  • In 2014 Tesla Motors announced its first version of AutoPilot, an automated system that takes complete control of the vehicle: accelerating, braking, and steering. This is still a Level 2 technology which means the driver must monitor the driving and be prepared to intervene immediately at any time if the automated system fails to respond correctly.
  • Fuel efficiency and sustainability are also significant concerns for carmakers in the 21st century. Most consumers are now environmentally conscious, and many governments are implementing progressive goals for sustainability that must be adhered to by auto manufacturers.

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