20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today

Many important and groundbreaking innovations and inventions have shaped the modern car and dictated automobile engineering in general. These 20+ are just a few examples.
Christopher McFadden
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Automobiles have changed a lot since the 1990s, let alone since their invention at the end of the 19th century. The following 20+ important innovations in automobile engineering are no exception.

These innovations show us just how far technology has come since the horseless carriage made its first appearance.

The following list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order. 

1. The steam engine kicked things off

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: Stephen Foskett/Wikimedia Commons

The steam engine was one of the first innovations in automobile engineering. Although originally developed to pump water out of mines, improvements over time would drastically shrink the size of the engine.

The first reliable steam engine was developed by James Watt in 1775 and this was, in turn, a refinement of the earlier Newcomen engine. 

Steam engines would initially lead to the development of locomotives and steam-powered ships, but the technology was refined for use in early cars around the 1850s.  Steam cars outnumbered other forms of propulsion among very early cars, and fuel was relatively cheap as well.

The fate of the steam engined car was sealed when Henry Ford fully developed his mass production process. Electrical starters for internal combustion engines also removed the need for the hand-crank engine, and internal combustion engine-driven cars would ultimately win out as they were much cheaper to buy.

2. The internal combustion engine made cars 'cheap'

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: Bru-nO/Pixabay

The internal combustion engine is, by any standards, the de facto reason for the existence of the automobile today. Although various examples of early engines have been around since the 1700s, it took Etienne Lenior to produce the first reliable one, in 1859.

The modern internal combustion engine as we know it was developed when Nikolaus Otto patented his "atmospheric gas engine" in 1864. Later developments were made by George Brayton (the first liquid-fuel engine) and collaboration between Otto, Daimler, and Maybach gave the world the first four-cycle engine in 1876. 

The two-stroke engine was developed by Karl Benz a little later, in 1879, and the production of Benz's first commercial motor vehicles commenced in 1886.

3. The starter rendered hand cranks obsolete

Internal combustion engines essentially work on a feedback system that relies on inertia from each cycle to initiate the next. For this reason, early cars needed a way to rotate (crank) the engine initially, to allow it to run on its own power.

Early engines used a variety of methods to achieve this, from gunpowder cylinders to springs, to brute force - using the iconic crank handle. Although effective, these methods were inconvenient, difficult, and could even be dangerous. Engines would often 'kickback' making the process was less than predictable.

What was needed was a less laborious, more convenient, and predictable means of starting the engine.

The first electric starter was developed in England in 1896 by H. J. Dowsing. The first U.S. patent for an electric starter was granted in 1903, with a patent for an improved version in 1911. The first cars to have electrical starters installed were produced by Cadillac in 1912.

Starter motors are of course now standard in automobiles, but their rise was not guaranteed, and cranks were still in use well into the 1920s. Interestingly, hand cranks were still supplied by some manufacturers as late as the production of cars like the Citroen 2CV (1948-1990). They were provided as a way to start the car in case the starter or battery failed.

4. The diesel engine is pretty efficient

The diesel engine, or compression-ignition (CI) engine, was developed by Rudolf Diesel and is still today the highest thermal efficiency of any practical internal combustion engine. In some cases, low-speed diesel engines can have a thermal efficiency of just over 50%

As the name suggests, the ignition of the fuel is accomplished by mechanical compression of the air in the combustion chamber, to such a degree that injected atomized diesel ignites instantaneously (adiabatic compression). This contrasts with the spark-ignition of petrol or gas engines.

Rudolf Diesel, after almost being killed by an earlier ammonia vapor fueled steam engine, decided to base his new engine on the Carnot Cycle instead. Soon after Karl Benz was awarded his patent in 1893, Diesel published his groundbreaking treatise "Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat-engine to Replace the Steam Engine and The Combustion Engines Known Today".

The diesel engine was born.

5. Anti-lock Brakes Have Helped to Save Lives

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: Pixabay

Anti-lock brakes, or anti-skid braking systems (ABS), are actually a pretty old piece of automobile engineering. Although modern systems were introduced in the 1950s aero-industry and became popular in cars from the 1970s onwards, the concept actually dates from as early as 1908.

Modern systems allow the car to maintain tractive contact with the road during braking, thus preventing the wheels from locking, or ceasing to rotate, and therefore causing the vehicle to skid. The system is automated and takes advantage of the principles of threshold and cadence braking practiced by skilled drivers using the previous generation of braking systems.

The first patented 'ABS' was developed by German engineer Karl Wessel in 1928 - but he would never develop a working product. During the 1950s, the technology began to take shape, with Dunlop Maxaret's anti-skid system, which was used extensively on UK jet aircraft like the Avro Vulcan and English Electric Lightning.

A truly modern system was introduced by Chrysler and was a computerized, three-channel, four-sensor all-wheel ABS. It was called "Sure Brake" and came as standard on their 1971 Imperial. Other car manufacturers followed suit over the following decades, and ABS was introduced on motorcycles in the 1990s.

6. Automatic transmission made driving easier

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: Ritchyblack/Wikimedia Commons

Automatic transmission, auto, or self-shifting transmission is another great innovation in automobile engineering. The automated system frees the driver from the need to change gear ratios manually as the vehicle is on the move. 

Although less responsive and more prone to faults than manual transmissions, this innovation reduced the number of elements that a driver needs to control use in order to drive. This has obvious advantages for individuals with disabilities, and also makes cars easier to drive overall. 

The automatic transmission was originally developed in 1921 by Alfred Horner Munro, a Canadian. He patented his design in 1923 and acquired UK and US patents in 1924 and 1927, respectively.

Munro was actually a steam engineer, and his early design used compressed air rather than hydraulic fluid, as used by modern systems. Sadly, he never found a commercial application. Two Brazilian engineers, José Braz Araripe and Fernando Lely Lemos developed a hydraulic fluid version in 1932 and sold their design to General Motors in 1940

7. Power steering made driving more pleasurable

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: OSX/Wikimedia Commons

Power Steering, or power-assisted steering (PAS), is another great innovation in automobile engineering and helps drivers steer their cars more easily. The use of hydraulic or electric actuators allows drivers to exert much less effort when turning the steering wheel than in not PAS fitted vehicles, especially at low speeds or when stationary.

Early versions of power steering were patented in 1876, 1902, and 1904, but none of these made it into production. The first practical system was devised in 1926 by Francis W. Davis. He later moved to General Motors and further refined his designs.

Chrysler Corporation was the first to make power steering commercially available in a passenger car, incorporating the technology into their 1951 Imperial. GM quickly followed suit with their 1952 Cadillac. 

Today, most vehicles come with power steering as standard. 

8. Airbags: saving lives with the power of air

After the seatbelt, airbags are one of the most important innovations in vehicle safety and automobile engineering. They are designed to inflate extremely quickly during collisions, impacts, or sudden rapid deceleration and deflate equally as fast.

This technology has saved thousands of lives since its mass adoption in the automobile industry. 

Airbags can trace their origin to air-filled bladders used as early as the 1950s. Their invention is widely credited to John W. Hetrick, who registered his patent in 1951. A similar system was also patented in Germany by Walter Linderer at about the same time. Both systems used compressed air that was triggered using a spring, bumper contact, or manually by the driver.

It would take the development of crash sensors in the 1960s for the technology to become widely adopted. Mercedes-Benz, GM, Ford, and Chrysler would include them in their cars from the 1970s, but they wouldn't become standard until the 1990s.

9. Electric car engines are a thing of the past and future

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: Henrysirhenry/Wikimedia Commons

Electric car engines have been around for much longer than you might expect. Although hybrid or all-electric vehicles are now used in huge numbers, the first practical production electric car actually appeared in London in 1884.

Another design, The Flocken Elektrowagen, was produced in Germany in 1888. Cars powered by electric engines, along with those powered by steam, actually outsold cars powered by internal combustion engines in the early years of the automotive age, at least before the advent of the electric starter engine. 

The early electrical cars were popular it the late 1800's and early 1900's, as they offered a level of comfort and ease of use not achieved by rival technologies at the time. It is estimated that around 30,000 such vehicles had been produced by the turn of the 20th century.

The internal combustion engine would ultimately win out, shunting electrical cars into the shadows until their renaissance in the late 20th century. 

10. GPS - U.S. military tech getting you from A to B

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: Pixabay

The GPS, or Global Positioning System, was originally developed by the United States Government for use by the armed forces. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) decided to use satellites to support a new navigation system. The first Navigation System with Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR) satellite was launched in 1978.

The first GPS system used 24 satellites and became fully operational in 1995. Credit for its creation is often given to Roger L. Easton, Ivan A. Getting, and Bradford Parkinson. 

Civilian use of the system was allowed from as early as the 1980s and today the GPS constellation consists of 31 satellites and GPS systems that have since become integrated into many modern technologies, from smartphones to cars, and have revolutionized the way we all navigate.


11. Catalytic converter: improving air quality since the 1970s

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: Hermann Luyken/Wikimedia Commons

The catalytic converter is one of the most important automobile engineering innovations of all time. Its ability to convert toxic gases and other pollutants into less-hazardous forms has improved the air quality of our cities drastically.

The basic concept is that exhaust gases are passed through the converter, catalyzing them into less-toxic forms in a redox reaction. The converters have become a legal requirement on diesel and gasoline engines, but can also be fitted to lean-burn engines, as well as kerosene heaters and stoves.

Catalytic converters were the brainchild of Eugene Houdry, a French engineer, who'd moved to the U.S. in 1930. He was shocked by the level of smog and pollution in Los Angeles when he arrived and decided to try to solve the problem. By the mid-1950's he had been granted a patent for his technology. 

It took stricter environmental regulations around the world for the mass adoption of catalytic converters in cars. The first production converter, an improvement on Houdry's design, was produced in 1973. They were first introduced on cars in the U.S. from 1975, to comply with the EPA's stricter regulations on exhaust emissions.

12. Saving lives with the three-point seat belt

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: State Farm/Wikimedia Commons

The now-ubiquitous three-point seatbelt is designed to spread the rapid deceleration energy from a collision over the chest, pelvis, and shoulders of the wearer. It was first introduced by Volvo in 1959 and was developed by Nils Bohlin, who had previously worked for SAAB developing ejection seats.

Before this innovation, the two-point seat belt was the standard. these strapped across the body, with a buckle placed over the abdomen. These were known to cause serious internal injuries during high-speed crashes.

This great innovation in automobile engineering first appeared in the Volvo PV 544 but became standard in the 1959 Volvo 122. Volvo would later make the patent for the device open-source, in the interest of safety for the general public and the industry at large.

According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, these belts save around 11,000 lives every year.

13. Improved fuel efficiency with the hybridized drivetrain

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: Mariordo/Wikimedia Commons

When Toyota released the first Prius for sale to the public in 1998, few would appreciate the impact it would eventually have on the auto industry. This car incorporated a hybrid, electric-gasoline drivetrain that dramatically improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions, forcing other car manufacturers to follow suit.

The Prius was the first mass-produced hybrid. It came with a small 1.5-liter gas engine, electric motor, and nickel-metal hydride battery. Although uptake was slow at first, today most car brands have some form of hybrid vehicle in their catalog. In many parts of the world, they are replacing solely gasoline-powered vehicles, which are being phased out.

14. Stability Control Helped Stop Skids

ESC or electronic stability control helps correct a skid if a car starts to slide. It is, in effect, an improvement in the anti-lock brake systems that preceded it. ESC produces a marked improvement in car safety, especially during emergency situations.

As ESC yaw sensors detect a slide, the system applies the brakes to individual wheels to help correct the skid and straighten the car. Some ESC systems also take control of the throttle to manage power to each wheel as well.

Mercedes-Benz and BMW brought ESC to their luxury car market in the mid-1990s. From  2011, ESC became a legal requirement in passenger cars in many countries.

15. Onboard diagnostics II (OBD II) improved engine management

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: Conrad

Onboard diagnostics II, OBD II for short, was the natural progression from the first onboard diagnostics systems developed in the 1980s.

Its introduction provided both home mechanics and professional technicians a means of more easily determining what exactly is wrong with a vehicle through a series of codes.

OBD II also allowed for a considerably more sophisticated method of controlling the engine, improve fuel efficiency, etc. 

Although it was initially hated by car enthusiasts and mechanics, the system has sparked a new industry of scan tools and other aftermarket devices, ranging from fuel economy meters to engine performance tuners.

16. Dual-clutch transmission made gear shifts seamless

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: Matti Blume/Wikimedia Commons

Dual-Clutch Transmission (DCT) allows for a driver to rapidly switch between gears, giving enhanced and seamless speed compared to more traditional transmissions. It has resulted in a transmission that is as easy to use as an automatic transmission, and as responsive as a manual transmission.

On a typical, six-speed DCT gearbox, one clutch will handle odd gears whilst the other will shifts even gears. Gear changes are controlled by a series of computers.

The concept was initially devised by a Frenchman, Adolphe Kegresse, before WWII, but he never made a working model.

DCT was first introduced in racing cars in the 1980s and was first brought to the general public by Volkswagen. Their first dual-clutch transmission, DSG, was launched in 2003.

It has since become widely available in many other automotive brands, including Lamborgini and Mercedes-Benz.

17. Smart key (fob): effortless engine ignition

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: ScrewsHirsch/Wikimedia Commons

The traditional metal key is fast becoming a living fossil in the auto industry. Smart keys are the new standard, allowing engine ignition with the press of a button rather than the turning of a key.

Some even start the car you as you approach. These were once just a novelty, with some early designs resembling a credit card. The fobs are thought to make cars harder to steal, although they can leave vehicles open to car hacking.

18. Turbochargers increase energy power and fuel efficiency

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Turbochargers, or turbos, have been used in production cars since the 1960s. They are effectively a compressor that is driven by the cars' exhaust gasses and force more air into the engine's cylinders.

More air leads to more power and can make a smaller engine perform outside of its class. They are commonly used with Otto and Diesel cycle engines.

The technology was invented by Swiss engineer Alfred Buchi who received a patent for it in 1905. The technology would initially find applications in aircraft engines, especially during WWII.

Today, car manufacturers are generally working to downsize their engines while including turbocharged alternatives. This simultaneously boosts performance and increases fuel efficiency.

19. Flashing turn signals let other drivers know your intentions

Another minor, yet important, automobile engineering innovation is the flashing turn signal (indicator). Early forms date to 1907, but the version patented in 1938 is the one now used widely and is generally required on all street-legal cars.

These signals are required to blink on and off at a rate between 60 and 120 "blinks per minute".  Older models used a thermal interrupter switch to provide the 'blink' but these have been replaced with transistor circuits. 

20. Cruise control paved the way for driverless cars

20+ Greatest Innovations And Inventions of Automobile Engineering: From the First Engine to Today
Source: Santeri Viinamäki/Wikimedia Commons

Cruise control was first developed by Ralph Teeter in the 1940s. He developed the technology in response to his belief that uneven speeds caused accidents. 

Teeter developed a servomechanism to help maintain the car's speed by taking control of the throttle from the driver. Although unpopular when first introduced in the 1950s, it now comes as standard in many cars today.

The addition of radar to cruise control in the early 2000s has taken the technology to the next level. It has also paved the way for the advent of driverless cars.

21. The blindspot mirror helped drivers spot each other with ease

automobile innovations blind spot
Source: Josh Ferris/Flickr

Blindspot mirrors, as the name suggests, are mirrors that are specially designed to help the driver see areas around their car which are normally obscured from view. Usually attached to a car's side-view or wing mirrors, these simple devices helped make driving a lot safer.

However, innovations in mirror technology may render them obsolete in the not-too-distant future. 

Interestingly, side view mirrors in and of themselves only began to appear in the 1960s. Prior to this many roads were unpaved and only had two lanes (one in each direction). Drivers only really needed to be concerned with the goings-on directly in front and behind their vehicles. 

22. The pneumatic tire was revolutionary

innovations in automobiles tire
Source: Geni/Wikimedia Commons

Yet another great innovation in automobile engineering was the development of the pneumatic tire. In its simplest form, this consists of a simple donut of rubber filled with compressed air that provides a more comfortable and effective means of absorbing shock and carrying loads.

The first recorded patent for the technology was filed by Robert William Thomson in 1845, in England. His design consisted of a hollow leather tire filled with, yes you've guessed it, air. Called "aerial wheels", they proved to be less popular than Thomson's solid rubber tires of the same period.

With the rise in popularity of the bicycle in the late-1800s, interest in pneumatic tires was reignited. And so, in 1888, John Boyd Dunlop, a veterinary surgeon from Belfast, Northern Ireland, obtained patents for his bicycle pneumatic tires. 

For cars, the first pneumatic tires were first developed by the French rubber manufacturer Michelin & Cie

23. LED headlamps were also an interesting development

automobile innovations LED
Source: Kickaffe/Wikimedia Commons

LED headlamps are yet another important innovation in automobile engineering. They first began to appear in around 2004, and have gone from strength to strength ever since.

Unlike their predecessors, LED headlamps tend to have longer lifespans and consume less electricity compared to halogen, tungsten, and high-intensity discharge alternatives. They can offer significant other benefits, too, including lower maintenance costs and increased visibility. 

From around 2006, the first series-production LED low beams began to be factory-installed in vehicles like the Lexus LS 600h. The following year, the first headlamps to use LEDs for all functions were introduced on the V10 Audi R8 sports car. 

24. The rearview backup camera helps prevent accidents

automobile innovations rear camera
Source: Altair78/Wikimedia Commons

The rearview backup camera, also known as a reversing camera or simply rear-view camera, has made reversing your car a lot safer and more convenient. 

Specifically designed to avoid collisions while reversing, these video cameras and onboard screen setups effectively remove rear blind spots for the driver. But they are not a new innovation.

Some of the first backup/reversing camera systems were used in a 1956 Buick Centurion concept car. Consisting of a rear-mounted television camera, it sent images to a TV screen located in the dashboard in place of a regular rear-view mirror. 

One of the first production cars to feature this technology was the Toyota Soarer Limited UZZ31 and UZZ32, which was only available in Japan in the early-1990s. 

Aftermarket options for cars have been available for some time, but many production cars today come with them fitted as standard. Some nations, including the U.S. and Canada, now mandate that all new production cars must have them fitted by law. 

25. Collision avoidance technology is another significant advancement

innovation automobiles cds
Source: NTSB/Twitter

Yet another important innovation in the automotive industry are collision avoidance technologies or systems (CAS). Also known as driver assistance systems, this technology helps to prevent human error in collisions to prevent or reduce their severity as much as reasonably practicable.

Modern systems tend to have a range of capabilities, from simple warnings to the driver, to complete autonomous take over of the vehicle's systems to avoid or mitigate an impending accident. 

In their most basic form, CAS' consist of forward-collision systems which monitor a car's speed and the speed of the vehicle in front of it (if any). The system constantly monitors the distance between the two vehicles and provides a warning if the driver, in the system's view, is getting too close.

In many countries today, new cars must come with autonomous emergency braking systems to prevent potentially serious crashes. Other systems may also feature a lane departure warning system that will warn the driver if they begin to stray out of their lane. 

26. Connected mobile apps in cars are being developed in earnest

automobile innovation apps
Source: pxfuel

The growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) has also reached the automobile industry. One area is the recent explosion in connected mobile apps especially tailored for use with automobiles.

Having the ability to partially interface your mobile device with your car has been around for some time, like Bluetooth connectivity, but there is a real push to develop API's to connect many other apps on your phone to your car. Today, many automakers are working closely with various app developers to make this a reality. 

From infotainment to onboard car diagnostics, this area is predicted to see massive growth over the next few years, according to Price Waterhouse Cooper

27. Vehicle tracking software, remote vehicle shutdown, and sentry mode are revolutionizing the automobile industry

Another important innovation in automobile technology is the advent of vehicle tracking software and remote vehicle shutdown and/or sentry mode. Some brands, like Tesla, offer this as standard with their range of vehicles, while aftermarket/third-party options are also widely available for many different vehicles.

Using a combination of GPS and IoT, today's vehicle owners have a range of weapons at their disposal to counter vehicle theft. While there are some serious security risks with these kinds of innovations, many believe the pros outweigh the cons. 

28. Regenerative braking is yet another big automobile industrial innovation

innovation automobile regenerative braking systems
Source: Geni/Wikimedia Commons

Another big innovation in the automobile industry is regenerative braking. An energy recovery mechanism, regenerative braking slows down a vehicle by converting some of its kinetic energy into a form that can be either be used immediately or stored until needed.

These systems usually consist of an electric traction motor that uses the vehicle's momentum to recover energy that would otherwise be lost as heat. Such systems not only improve the overall energy efficiency of the vehicle but also extend the life of the braking system due to the reduced wear on the braking system's mechanical parts. 

The technology has its origins in the late 1800s, and actually began to appear on trains as early as the 1930s. Today, many automakers, including Toyota, Peugeot, BMW, and Volkswagen, have begun to include them as standard, notably in VW's BlueMotion series of cars. 

29. BladeScan technology could be the future of automobile headlights 

automobile innovation bladescan
Source: Lexus

Currently, an option only on new Lexus', BladeScan technology is shaping up to be another important innovation for the automobile industry. Building on their expertise in LED headlights and adaptive high-beam headlights, Lexus is now rolling out their next automotive lighting pioneering work.

"BladeScan technology... delivers more precise photometric control of the area of illumination in front of the car, being accurate to within 0.7 degrees.

It also offers a broader distribution of light to brighten areas that would not normally be illuminated with a conventional high-beam system." - Lexus

30. ClearSight ground view and rearview mirrors

automobile innovation land rover
Source: Jaguar Land Rover

And finally, Jaguar Land Rover's ClearSight ground and rearview mirror technology is another potentially revolutionary innovation in automobile safety. Using a combination of cameras and a rearview mirror-integrated display, these devices provide the driver with unprecedented views at strategic points around the vehicle.  

It was first unveiled by Land Rover at the February 2019 Chicago Auto Show and is now available in their 2020 range of Rover Evoque. 

"The Land Rover ClearSight rear-view mirror uses a rear-mounted camera to display a wide-angle camera view of what’s behind your vehicle right on your rear-view mirror. So even if you have tall people sitting in the back seat or your cargo area is piled high with camping equipment, furniture, or moving boxes, you’ll have no problems backing up." - Land Rover

So there you go - 20+ of the greatest innovations and inventions in automobile engineering. Have we missed any big ones? Feel free to add your suggestions below.

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