Car Evolution: A Century of Automotive Innovation

They’re calling automated braking the greatest safety invention in 20 years. The new technology uses sensors that can detect an impending collision and send a signal to automatically hit the brakes. Twenty leading automakers have announced their intent to install automatic brakes on 99 percent of cars by 2022.

Automatic brakes illustrate how far car automation has come in the century since Henry Ford revolutionized the automotive assembly line. Here’s a look back at car evolution — how¬†automobiles¬†got from Ford to where they are today.

Ford’s Breakthrough

Before Ford, cars were expensive. The 19th century had seen early steam cars develop into reliable, fast gasoline-powered cars. But these new vehicles were luxury items. When Karl Benz introduced his Viktoria car in 1893, he priced it at today’s equivalent of $72,545, managing to sell only 45. Cars were expensive because most manufacturers used groups of mechanics to build them by hand.

In 1901, two developments heralded the arrival of affordable cars. The discovery of oil fields in Texas sent gas prices falling. Meanwhile, the Olds Motor Vehicle Company introduced mass production methods to car-making. Cadillac soon introduced interchangeable parts, adding efficiency.

Then came Ford. Years earlier, Ford had figured out a way to mass-produce cars cheaply enough to sell them to everyone. After 12 years of experimentation and eight models, he finally came up with the Model T. To produce the Model T, Ford streamlined assembly line production, installing a moving assembly line which carried car frames on a conveyor belt. Ford released the first Model T for $850 in 1908. Production quickly grew from 82,000 to 189,000 during the next year. By 1916, increases in efficiency allowed dealers to sell Model Ts profitably for less than $400.

The Classic Car Era

Ford’s success sparked the rapid growth of the automotive industry. Competitors began developing alternatives to the Model T. Car races grew popular, with Indianapolis 500 pioneer Barney Oldfield popularizing Ford’s vehicles while racing on Firestone tires. American automobile manufacturers supplied war goods for the Allies in World War I, growing the industry and spreading the use of automobiles as a means of transportation. By 1919, the automotive industry was the third largest U.S. industry despite being only 20 years old. By 1923, there were 108 automakers in the U.S. Over the course of the 1920s, car production grew from about 2.3 million to over 4.5 million.

But competition soon drove most manufacturers out of business, with the number of U.S. automakers dropping to 44 by 1927. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler consolidated control of the industry, with GM’s Chevy overtaking Ford in sales. The Great Depression further shrunk the competition, and over the course of the 1930s, the Big Three’s market share expanded from 80 percent to 90.

The Postwar Revival

World War II revived the car industry, transforming Detroit into the Arsenal of Democracy as American automotive manufacturers produced 20 percent of U.S. war material. In the postwar years, cars became American status symbols, with long, luxurious gas guzzlers sporting tail fins inspired by jet fighters becoming popular. Tubeless tires were introduced. By the 1950s U.S. manufacturers accounted for two thirds of global car production.

The Age of Economy

The 1960s saw the beginning of a shift in the auto industry. U.S. market share fell, while European and Japanese production grew, introducing smaller cars to the global market. In 1965, the Vehicle Air Pollution and Control Act opened an era of tighter regulation. Rising oil prices increased demand for more fuel-efficient cars in the 1970s, favoring Japanese and European compact cars. By the 1980s, Japan had overtaken the United States as the world’s leading car manufacturer. To regain market share, in 1986 Ford introduced the streamlined Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. The Taurus soon became the new Model T, outselling the Honda Accord by the mid-1990s.

The Digital Age

Over the last four decades, electronics and computers have driven car innovations. Electronic fuel injection, computer diagnostics, all-wheel drive, airbags, GPS and hybrid technology have reshaped automobiles into today’s designs. Driverless technology, such as automated braking, promises to propel cars into the next stage of development.

About the Author: Roy Rasmussen, coauthor of Publishing for Publicity, is a freelance copywriter who helps small businesses get more customers and make more sales. His specialty is helping experts reach their target market with a focused sales message. His most recent projects include books on cloud computing, small business management, sales, business coaching, social media marketing, and career planning.