For more than a century, people have been using automobiles to travel from one place to another. The cars of today, however, are almost completely unrecognisable from those of even the recent past. Let’s take a run through some of the more significant developments over the lifespan of the modern motor-car, and see what the future might hold.
The earliest forms of horseless carriage were driven, not by fossil fuels, but by steam. In the 1870s, it became practical for steam power to drive vehicles smaller than a train. These early prototypes, however, proved a non-starter. Greater promise was shown by early electric cars, and then by the internal combustion engine.
The early gas-guzzlers
The first stationary gasoline engine came in 1879, when Carl Benz first ran his one-cylinder, two-stroke engine. Such was the success of this product that Benz was able to devote more and more of his time to the development of a vehicle that could house it. This ended up looking more like a carriage or a bicycle than the car we might recognise today; it lacked a chassis and had just one front wheel, which could be turned via a crank.
Things changed in the early 20th century, with the arrival of mass production. Undoubtedly the most influential vehicle of this era was the Model T, developed in 1908 by Henry Ford. The success of the car was enough to prompt Ford to abandon his attempts to develop a battery for an electric vehicle. It wasn’t until much later, when the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels became apparent, that things would take a turn in the other direction.
Electricity did play a role in the development of the starter motor, however. This removed the need to hand-crank a motor – a dangerous operation that caused a not-insignificant number of kickback-related fatalities each year.
After the end of the Second World War, many soldiers returned to civilian life in their home countries. But many of them, having survived the war, ended up falling victim to road accidents. The need for safer transport prompted the development of a whole range of innovations – including crumple zones, airbags, seatbelts, and a broader change in attitudes and culture.
The Modern era
The automotive industry is midway through a revolution, with electric cars now establishing themselves as the default choice for many motorists. Over the next decade, we should see a rapid proliferation of charging infrastructure. The more charging stations there are, the more electric cars there will be – and vice versa. This creates a positive spiral of incentives that might quickly sweep aside the existing internal-combustion-driven car market.
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