The 10 Greatest Automobile Innovations

By: Jack Sackman

Automobiles have come a long way since Henry Ford rolled the Model T off the assembly line in Detroit nearly 100 years ago. Indeed, Henry Ford could scarcely imagine the ways in which the car has evolved and improved over the years. From new safety features to entertainment units and luxuries such as heated seats, the modern motor vehicle is a marvel of engineering. And now, we are moving towards completely autonomous self-driving cars. The car industry is constantly reinventing itself. And each improvement over the years has built on the ones that have come before it and led us to where we are today. Here’s a look at the 10 greatest automobile innovations of all time, and the impact that they have had on the cars we now drive.


10. Global Positioning System (GPS) and Electronic Maps

There was a time, not too long ago, when getting lost in your car was a real and frequent problem. To find out where you were going required drivers to pull over, pull out a large paper map, spread it out across the dashboard and try to find, with their fingers, where they were and where their destination is located. This cumbersome task has largely been eradicated thanks to the prevalence of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and electronic maps used in cars today. The electronic mapping technologies used in most vehicles today are a wonder of science and enable people to get just about anywhere without getting lost. Advanced cars today have large onscreen displays that put navigation via the GPS right in their view. Better yet, many of the GPS systems today bark out orders to the driver, telling them when to turn and which exits to take off the highway to safely reach their destination. This is a luxury that people could not have imagined even 15 years ago but is now common place in most vehicles.

9. Run Flat Tires

Few vehicle parts have evolved over the years as much as tires. From the material that tires are made of through to the development of all terrain tires and the widespread use of winter tires. However, of all the innovations related to tires in the last century, the most significant from a safety perspective is the development of run flat tires. Common in nearly all tires today, run flat technology enables tires to retain some air and continue operating after they have been punctured. Granted, the vehicle has to be driven at a reduced speed (about five miles an hour) and can only go for a short distance (about 10 miles), but, in most situations, this is enough to safely get people to a garage for needed repairs. This has helped to eliminate the sight of people changing a tire on the side of a road, and saved countless drivers money spent on towing. It has also led to improved safety and done away with tire blowouts that were once common place.

8. Key Fobs

Today, key fobs are ubiquitous and used to do everything from unlock doors, set off the horn and lights if you lose your car in a parking lot, and, in some cases, remember how you like your seat and mirror and adjust them accordingly. Almost everyone today uses a key fob to open and lock their car. Yet key fobs have only been around since 1993 when they were introduced for that year’s Chevy Corvette. Now, all cars have key fobs that save people from having to remember where they parked their car and having to use a key to open the door. Key fobs have also become an important safety tool, as they are equipped to set off car alarms in the event that a person is mugged or attacked in a parking lot or parking garage.

7. Electric Engines

While this technology is still being refined, electric engines are the future of the automotive industry and more vehicles are being outfitted with them all the time. What started with hybrid gas and electric engines a decade ago is now moving to pure electric engines capable of powering a car without the need for any gasoline or diesel. Not only is this a radical change for the entre automotive industry, but it is expected to save motorists money and help reduce pollution around the world and stem the flow of greenhouse gases thought to cause climate change. While many automotive analysts scoffed at hybrid engines when they first came on the scene, the development of the electric engine has only advanced and improved in recent years—to the point where they are now becoming the standard in cars.


6. Airbags

Safety has improved with each generation of car. And one of the most innovative safety breakthroughs ever has been airbags. And, believe it or not, airbags are still a relatively new innovation. Wide spread use of airbags began in the late 1980s, and, initially, only the driver of a car was equipped with an airbag that deployed in the event of a crash or on impact. However, as it became clear that airbags are incredibly effective at saving lives, use of the device spread and came to include the front passenger as well. Airbags have continued to evolve over the years, and they are now responsible for saving thousands of lives each year. As recently as 2011, General Motors introduced a new front center air bag, which was the industry’s first inflatable center restraint designed to protect drivers and front passengers in side impact crashes.

5. Power Steering and Power Brakes

It used to be a lot more difficult to drive a car, and it required considerable strength to steer and apply the brakes. This was in the age before power steering and power brakes. Many motorists used to breathe heavy when turning the steering wheel in their car, and using the brakes gave people’s calf muscles a good workout. Now, steering and braking have never been easier thanks to the invention of “power systems.” Power steering has actually been around, in theory, since the first cars were manufactured by the Ford Motor Company. But back then they were considered too expensive to be installed in every vehicle and made available to the public. It wasn’t until 1951 when Chrysler introduced the first passenger car equipped with power steering on its Imperial model. Advertised as “Hydraguide,” the new power steering systems took the automobile world by storm and resonated with a generation of motorists who had recently returned from the Second World War and were moving to the suburbs. Power steering is credited with making cars easier to operate and more accessible to American consumers.

4. Anti-Lock Brakes

Another critical safety feature is the anti-lock brake. Automobile manufacturers had been playing with electronic braking systems as far back as the early 1960s, but none could commercialize the technology. It wasn’t until 1978 when Mercedes-Benz installed the first Anti-lock Braking Systems (ABS) on its production cars for that year that ABS became the new standard in the global car industry. The computerized braking systems help drivers maintain control of their vehicle while stopping, and stabilize cars, preventing them from rolling over on impact. This technology revolutionized the automotive industry, and today ABS is the standard in all makes and models of vehicles. The technology makes brakes on older model cars from the 1960s and 1950s look like something out of the Stone Age.

3. Automatic Transmissions

Automatic transmissions are now largely the standard in cars. Manual transmissions that use clutch pedals and gear shifting are still available, but have largely been replaced by automatic transmissions that shift gears electronically and automatically for drivers. And automatic transmissions have been around since 1940, when General Motors introduced what it then called the “Hydra-Matic,” the first mass-produced automatic transmission that made it easier for people everywhere to drive, and learn to drive. General Motors advertised its first automatic transmission cars as the “World’s Simplest, Easiest Way to Drive!” Today, most people have never driven a manual transmission car or learned to work a clutch pedal. And while many driving purists prefer to “drive a stick,” and claim it is the real way to drive a car, most motorists prefer the convenience of automatic transmissions.

2. Seat Belts

They are widely regarded as the greatest safety invention in automotive history, and people are now required to wear them by law in most jurisdictions. But there was a time when cars did not come equipped with any seat belts, and another time when seat belts were an optional feature for motorists. American car manufacturer Nash was the first company to make a vehicle with a seat belt in it back in 1949. The Ford Motor Company, in 1955, offered seat belts as an option for its cars. The first company to place seat belts in a car as a standard item was Swedish auto manufacturer Saab in 1958. The world’s first seat belt law making the safety devices mandatory was put in place in 1970 in Victoria, Australia. Today, research shows that seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front seat occupants by 45 percent, and lower the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50 percent. Not surprising then that seat belts are now required by law to be worn in most jurisdictions throughout the world.


1. Gasoline Engine

While we’re now moving towards the widespread use of electric engines in vehicles, the gasoline engine has endured for nearly 100 years—since 1920. And yet, the gasoline engine was not the first type of engine used in cars. It was a steam powered engine that was used first. However, by 1920, the internal combustion engine had progressed to the point that the steam engine was rendered obsolete. The gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine took over and has led to the modern automobile of today. Interestingly, the gasoline engine has not changed much over the years. The basic make-up of the engine has remained largely unchanged despite all the other innovations added to motor vehicles. Gasoline internal combustion engines have gotten generations of motorists where they need to go and powered the evolution of the car.