There are a few major inventions that have shaped the evolution of the automobile, and thus society at large.
We’ve tried to keep this list short by leaving out some of the things that haven’t greatly changed motoring for the average consumer.
Take ABS brakes, for example: there might be more accidents (and more severe accidents) without them, but progress would probably not have gone in a different direction if they had never been invented. We would probably still live and drive more or less the same.
Without the inventions on this list, though, the driving experience would look totally different.
1. The internal combustion engine
Before the internal combustion engine, cars were run by the steam engine. The combustion engine proved to be more energy-efficient, and thus was key to making automobiles that could travel fast and far at affordable cost.
In addition, combustion engines were quieter and more compact than any steam engines at the time. We’ll never know what motoring would have become if society had stuck with the steam engine, but it would certainly be different, and cars would probably be less affordable and convenient to use.
2. The transmission
We could go on and on about the different innovations in automotive transmissions (like the planetary gear system or the torque converter), and all the different types of automatic transmissions that have come along over the past several decades.
For the sake of brevity, though, we’ll just lump them all in together. The transmission and all of its various advancements have made driving easier for consumers, which in turn makes vehicles more popular.
More importantly, they’ve made it possible to drive faster and further. The range of output by a motor is severely limited without gearing, which means we’d have to drive much slower, which, in turn, limits the distance you can drive.
3. The diesel engine
The diesel engine has greatly lowered the cost of industry and transportation, and thus the cost of goods.
As BBC reports in an article about the impact of the diesel engine,
“After World War Two, ever more powerful and efficient diesel engines led to ever more enormous ships. Fuel accounts for around 70% of the costs of shipping goods around the world. Scientist Vaclav Smil argues that steam-powered globalisation would have grown much more slowly than diesel allowed.”
One might wonder if this is really pertinent to the automobile, because most American consumer cars are gasoline engines. However, the diesel engine has affected modern drivers in numerous ways.
The trucks that haul fuel from the field to refinery and then to the pump station are diesel engines. Cars manufactured overseas are brought over by ships with diesel engines. The equipment used in mining and manufacturing goods (like consumer cars) is largely powered by diesel. The cost-effectiveness of diesel affects the prices of a vast majority – if not all – of goods.
Additionally, many consumer cars are powered by diesel. In fact, according to Popular Mechanics, roughly 50% of all cars in Europe are diesel-operated.
We could quite literally go on all day about the many ways diesel engines have affected both the modern economy and modern motoring.
4. The automotive battery
At one point, production cars came without an electrical system. The headlights were powered by gas and the vehicle was started by way of a hand crank, which is as difficult as to use as it sounds.
The manual crank was more than difficult, too - it was dangerous. This story alleges that one driver got stuck on the roadside when her car stalled, and she didn’t have the strength to turn it over.
If that sounds like an inconvenience, it’s trivial compared to the guy who stopped to help her out as he was driving by. The motor backfired and the crank struck him in the face, breaking his jaw. Rough day, to be sure, but it gets much worse: he then caught gangrene and was dead within a year. It is this event, allegedly, that inspired Cadillac to introduce the electric starter motor in their vehicles.
This, of course, was enabled by the car battery, which also enables other conveniences like headlights, interior lights, the radio, modern electronics like sensors and computers, and, of course, the onboard diagnostics computer.
The same batteries that have been developed and mass-produced for automobiles have laid the groundwork for the batteries used in diesel vehicles, RVs, boats, solar arrays, and electric vehicles. In other words, the existence of the modern automotive battery has greatly shaped progress in the 20th and 21st centuries.
5. On-board diagnostics
Some car enthusiasts lament the advent of electronics in automobiles, because it means that there are that many more parts to contend with. However, onboard diagnostics does make diagnosing issues much easier, much of the time.
To be fair to traditionalists, adding more parts does give you more parts that can fail. For example, electronic sensors seem to fail a lot more than mechanical parts. On the other hand, most of us will agree we’re happy to spend a pittance on replacing sensors if it keeps us from having more painful repairs.
Whatever your stance is, OBD-II has transformed the automotive industry - from how cars are built, to how they’re repaired, to the entire ownership experience. Thanks to onboard diagnostics (and the rest of the vehicle’s computer systems), we’re usually well-aware of a problem before it becomes urgent.
Electronics have certainly increased the purchase price of modern vehicles, but that has to be weighed against the inconvenience of not catching problems before they blossom into larger, potentially catastrophic ones.