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The Top 26 Automotive Innovations of All Time

What Historical Car Innovations Are The Most Significant?

The Steam Engine Was The Most Important Of Automotive Innovations

The first motor-propelled vehicle was made in France in 1769 and the first car was sold in the United States in 1898.

Since then the car has been a work in progress slowly evolving into what we have today. Through the years there has been improvements that helped the car perform and ride better, made it easier to maneuver, and more comfortable and safer to ride in. Moreover, many of the most innovative enhancements have come in just the last 10 years.

There are so many great innovations it wouldn’t be fair to list only 10. However, it’s no fun drawing up a list that includes them all. It’s best to be selective and then wait for the arguments from readers on why one or another was not included.

So, this list is going to include what I consider to be the Top 26 Car Innovations of All Time. No doubt, there will be a lot of you who won’t agree. So, let us know it.

Are These The Most Important Automotive Innovations In History?

1) The Steam Engine

It was steam engines that powered the earliest cars. In fact, it was the engine of choice because they were widely in use when the first cars were being driven out of the factories. Mechanics of the day knew how they worked and how to fix them.

Car Innovations - Steam Engine


2) Gasoline Engine

By 1920, the internal combustion engine had made steam engines obsolete and remained the standard for the next 96 years.

Car Innovations - Gasoline Engine


3) Automatic Transmission

Introduced in 1940, the Hydra-Matic was the first mass-produced automatic transmission. There was no longer a need to shift gears as the speed of the car increased and now just about anyone could drive a car.

Car Innovations - Automatic Transmission


4) Power Steering

Although there was power steering available when the first cars were made, it was too expensive for people to afford. In 1951 Chrysler introduced the Imperial that included “Hydraguide” power steering. It was affordable and made it much easier to turn the wheel.

Car Innovations - Power Steering


5) Electronic Stability Systems

The computerized system makes it easier to control the car. All that excess torque we’ve been accustomed to seeing lately would have had nowhere to go hadn’t there been for differentials which transfer them from the engine to the wheels. What torque vectoring does is to allow the differential to diversify the amount of torque sent to individual wheels which in turn boasts the grip and handling. First car with electronically controlled torque vectoring was the 1996 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IV. Japanese called it Active Yaw Control. It’s best utilized in all-wheel drive cars, but even modern two-wheel drive vehicles use it.

Car Innovations - Electronic Stability System


6) Electronically Controlled Torque Vectoring Differential

All that excess torque we’ve been accustomed to seeing lately would have had nowhere to go hadn’t there been for differentials which transfer them from the engine to the wheels. What torque vectoring does is to allow the differential to diversify the amount of torque sent to individual wheels which in turn boasts the grip and handling. First car with electronically controlled torque vectoring was the 1996 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IV. Japanese called it Active Yaw Control. It’s best utilized in all-wheel drive cars, but even modern two-wheel drive vehicles use it.

Electronically Controlled Torque Vectoring Differential Diagram


7) On-Board Diagnostics II

Self-diagnostic and reporting systems first introduced in the eighties have made life easier for both owners and car technicians. They allowed for relatively easy malfunction detection and considerably shortened the time spent on auto repair overall. OBD II have raised all this to an entirely new level in 1996. Using a 16-pin connector, technicians were able to pinpoint the faulty area almost instantly. On-board diagnostics II were used for fine tuning as well. The only thing with OBD II was – it enabled technicians to test vehicle’s emissions. That practically limited home-installed performance upgrades in a way at first, but it helped later on when fine tuning was required.

On-Board Diagnostics II


8) Airbags

Prior to the advent of airbags thousands of people died due to auto accidents. After airbags were introduced in the late 1980s cars were much safer to ride in and thousands of lives were saved each year.

Car Innovations - Air Bags


9) Electric Engines

When a car’s MPG became an issue after the first oil embargo in the 1970s drivers became concerned and later the electric engine was introduced as an alternative to the gasoline engine.

Car Innovations - Electric Engine


10) A Production Electric Vehicle

The GM EV1 wasn’t that successful of a car, nor were there too many of them made, but it was the first mass-produced electric car marketed by a major brand. In other words, this is Tesla’s predecessor in a way. Needless to say, EV1 is one of the most important automotive-related inventions of the last quarter-century. I’ll go even further and say it’s one of the most important such inventions of the entire 20th century. Sure, they had a short range and long charging times among other faults, but they did light the way for the next-gen of EVs. Electric cars are becoming more advanced by the minute, and they have EV1 to thank for.

GM EV1 Side View


11) Mass-Produced Hybrid Cars

It was in late 1997 that Toyota Prius was first offered in Japan. First mass-produced hybrid car would subsequently be offered globally by the year 2000, and the rest is history. Love them or hate them, hybrid cars have pros and cons of their own. Their efficiency/practicality ratio still can’t be beaten by anything else on the road. All-electric cars might be more efficient overall, but hybrids aren’t plagued by the limited range. Al in all, hybrid cars count themselves among the most important car industry’s breakthroughs of the last 25 years.

Toyota Prius In Motion


12) Start/Stop Technology

Even the simple action of stopping the car by pushing down the brake and then starting it up again when pushing down the accelerator can save a pretty decent amount of gasoline if you’re driving in rush hour in a big city.

Car Innovations - Stop-Start Tech


13) Radar-Based Cruise Control

Radar-based cruise control (also called adaptive cruise control) was first introduced in 1999, on a Mercedes-Benz S Class. Unlike the older systems which were able to maintain steady speed, this new system could also maintain the safe distance behind the vehicle in front, even if that vehicle changed its pace. All that with your feet off the pedals. This was a jumping off point for autonomous driving systems that are being introduced to us today, and to pre-collision safety systems that came a few years later. German automaker isn’t considered world’s premier tech innovator for no reason. Mercedes-Benz has been present when many of these active electronic safety features were introduced.

Radar-Based Cruise Control Dash View


14) Rear View Backup Camera

Rear view camera is an old idea which was first implemented on 1956 Buick Centurion concept car. However, production-ready rear view camera was first fitted to 2002 Infiniti Q45. Before that, you had to either trust your rearview mirrors or take a look over the shoulder if you wanted to safely back up from your driveway or any random parking spot for that matter. Technology uses one or more cameras positioned in various spots which send the picture of the surroundings to one of car’s monitors. This eliminates the need to look back or constantly adjust your rearview mirrors. Rear view backup camera has gone such a long way in the past 15 years that it’s earned itself mandatory spot in every new US vehicle as of 2018.

Rear View Backup Camera Screen View


15) Dual-Clutch Transmission

Dual-clutch transmission has made its debut in 2003 Volkswagen Golf R32 (Mk IV). It’s basically made out of two separate clutches in the same housing. One of them is shifting the odd, while the other one’s responsible for even gears. This eliminates most automatic transmission drawbacks and works faster than the manual. In other words, dual-clutch transmission is the future of shifting gears. All dual-clutch gearboxes are automatic, but most of them now allow manual gear shifting via semi-automatic mode. That further makes both the regular automatic and manual transmissions obsolete.

Dual-Clutch Transmission Cutaway


16) Automatic Parking

Intelligent parking assist system or advanced parking guidance system was first implemented by Toyota in 1999. This is the first mass-produced automatic parking system that had found its way to Toyota Prius and Lexus models. At first, automatic parking systems without any driver intervention have only allowed reverse parallel parking, but only in perfect conditions (lots of space and no obstacles). As time progressed and technology developed itself, automatic parking systems have started allowing perpendicular and angle parking as well, while further limiting and even completely excluding the necessity of user’s input. Modern systems have gone so far that you can basically walk out of your car and activate the system via your smart phone and let it do its job.

Intelligent parking assist system


17) Pre-Collision Safety System

Also called collision avoidance system, pre-crash system, forward collision warning system or collision mitigating system. Call it whatever you want, but it does the same thing – it helps you avoid accidents. First successful pre-crash system was made in 1995, at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California. It wasn’t until 2003 that it was finally included to the auto industry. You’ve probably guessed it – Mercedes-Benz S Class was the culprit. Together with it, Honda and Toyota too have introduced systems of their own during the same year. Pre-collision safety system comes in a number of forms these days, depending on technology. It can be radar, laser or camera-based, and it can either send the warning or take action if collision is imminent.

Pre-Collision Safety System Example


18) LED Headlamps

Headlamps have gone a long way just like any other vital part of your average car. The biggest leap in headlight design to date are probably the LED headlamps first introduced on the Audi A8 W12 back in 2004. LED lights are brighter than halogen lamps and they still offer warmer light than high intensity discharge (HID) lights. They’re also smaller and much more efficient while consuming much less energy at the same time. However, they do cost a lot, and there’s another player aiming at dethroning them. Laser headlamps are promising to be 1,000 times brighter than LEDs and to having two times their range, but they first have to become road-legal which they still aren’t in the US.

LED Headlamps Installed On A Car


19) GPS Navigation Systems

It sure is better to follow directions on a display in the center console of the car than reading a map or asking someone for directions. It makes things that much easier that people already can’t imagine the life without it. GPS navigation is irreplaceable when trying to find that specific back road path through the country or while trying to find the exact address in an unknown city. It practically makes old paper maps obsolete, and it doesn’t require that much space either. It’s still not standard equipment, but more and more models are getting it in their entry levels. Of course, GPS satellite navigation has its drawbacks too. Some people tend to rely too much on it which sometimes puts them in sticky situations.

Car Innovations - GPS Navigation System


20) Auto Security Systems with Push-Button Remotes

The remotes serve as key fobs. Not only can they turn a car alarm system on and off, they can also unlock the car door, start the engine, honk the car’s horn and flash the lights so you can find the car in a crowded parking lot, and pop open the car’s trunk.

Car Innovations - Key Fob


21) DVD Players/CD Changers

They keep the kids entertained during long trips. There’s no need now to play silly games like 20-questions or hear the kids complain, “Are we there yet?” Grown-ups can also hear their favorite songs continuously playing on the car audio system.

Car Innovations - DVD Entertainment Systems


22) Fuel Cells

Although they are still being developed and in use only sparingly, hydrogen fuel cells could be the technology that finally puts an end to carbon dioxide emissions from our cars.

Car Innovations - Fuel Cells


23) Satellite/Internet Radio/Infotainment Systems

No need to rely on nearby radio stations to entertain you. Just tune into your favorite Sirius/XM radio station or find a station anywhere in the world on the Internet.

Car Innovations - Satellite Radio


24) Blind Spot Monitor

The blind spot monitor is another safety system that’s slowly but steadily becoming unimaginable to live without. It detects vehicles on both sides of the car – those that are coming from behind, and those coming from tight angles as its name suggests. It then sends a warning if a vehicle gets into dangerously close proximity. Blind spot information system was first introduced in 2007 on the second generation Volvo S80 sedan. Since then, every reputable car manufacturer has derived a version of their own.

Blind Spot Monitor Illustration


25) Driverless Cars

Google is now testing autonomous or driverless cars. Some day you can sit in the back seat and let your car do the driving as you watch a DVD, read the newspaper, listen to your favorite tunes, or answer your email. Autonomous cars have been the next great thing in automotive evolution since the eighties, but it seems no one actually managed to make the final leap. Until Tesla did it last year. Technology is still in its infancy years, but it’s already one of the most important auto-related inventions of the 21st century. We can only expect the tech to grow and evolve as other manufacturers step in with their own systems – as was the case with pretty much every automobile tech over the years. For now, it seems that auto pilot feature can safely get us to our destination without requiring driver’s input at all. That’s at least how it works in theory. In practice, however, you’d be advised to keep your hands on the steering wheel or at least maintain keen senses. You never know when your input might be required.

Car Innovations - Driverless Car


26) Bluetooth

No need to lay your smartphone on the empty passenger seat and fumble for it when a call comes in. Just plug it into your car’s Bluetooth and you can receive and make calls and listen to your favorite tunes on your smartphone playlist. Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows connection between two or more devices. In automotive industry, that feat is best utilized in connecting the cell phones and the cars themselves, thus enabling the hands-free. Every car has it today, and so does every phone which makes Bluetooth that much omnipresent. However, it was an entirely new thing some 15 or so years ago, and that wasn’t that long time ago either.

Car Innovations - Bluetooth


What’s Next?

The future of the automotive industry looks to be an exciting one. With the transition from internal combustion engins to electric motors, and with the increased focus on autonomous vehicle technology and artificial intelligence, it looks like we’re heading deep into the realms of science fiction. New car models will feature cutting edge advanced new technologies and smart assistance systems, with connected car to car communication. A new autonomous car may not even come with a steering wheel! But all that is a long way off yet. For now, keep an eye on next year’s Consumer Electronics Show to have a rough idea of how the future of motoring might shape up. Until then, we can only speculate.

Chris Riley
About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them, but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. I founded GearHeads.org and then built and ran AutoWise.com until selling it to Lola Digital Media in 2020. I look forward to watching AutoWise grow as part of the AllGear group.