How Automotive Defined the 20th Century

February 24, 2017 Charles Cooper

And how the 21st century is defining automotive

From Model T to Suburbs to Self-Driving trucks.

When the New York World’s Fair got underway in 1964, General Motors turned heads with the Firebird IV, a concept vehicle the company predicted would usher in a new driving era straight out of the `The Jetsons.’ In its Fair presentation, GM said “The family will drive to the super-highway, turn over the car’s controls to an automatic, programmed guidance system and travel in comfort and absolute safety at more than twice the speed possible on today’s expressways.”

The prediction may have been a few decades early, but GM’s vision was spot on. As early versions of autonomous vehicles now hit the road in growing numbers, the auto business is poised to undergo one of the biggest transformations in its history. Cars will soon have the intelligence to diagnose road situations and assume responsibility for the more complex decisions that human beings make today. That application of new technologies will redefine how we think about transportation in terms of comfort and ownership, as well as how we define companies: from manufacturing behemoths to mobility software companies.

In the early 20th century, Detroit invented a way to mass produce affordable vehicles. In the early 21st century, it is working on ways to eliminate car fatalities completely.

But transformation has been a recurring theme for a sector in a perennial state of reinvention since Henry Ford debuted the Model T in 1908. For over a century, the auto industry has responded to changing needs of society with more innovation. In the early 20th century, Detroit invented a way to mass produce affordable vehicles. In the early 21st century, it is working on ways to eliminate car fatalities completely. Let’s revisit some of the highlights in that decades-long narrative of change.

1927 — Model T and the mass production era

Before Henry Ford, most Americans viewed the car as a luxury item. But he invented a business model based on a radically different idea: Create an affordable product by mass producing vehicles in a relatively short amount of time. Ford Motor’s assembly line process could turn out a car in one hour and 33 minutes that sold for less than $300. (For comparison’s sake, that’s $4,138.05 in today’s money.) By 1927, Model T’s were rolling off the lines every 24 seconds. Besides creating thousands of high-paying jobs in its factories, Ford’s success provided a major lift for other industries, such as steel and machine tool sectors, to supply the various components needed for to build the cars. Henry Ford, the most influential industrialist of his time, turned the automobile into an essential mode of transportation and commerce, and in doing so, helped to usher in the 20th century.

1946 — The spread of suburbia

The dramatic migration following the end of World War II couldn’t have taken place without the automobile. But as the scholar David Nye would later write, the automobile had become “an enabling technology” for dispersing the population. Even though suburbanization didn’t begin with the invention of the car, average Americans now could afford cars and longer distances from their place of work. Millions of people were able to leave the big cities to buy homes and start businesses in bedroom communities and the spacious areas beyond. As the US became a nation of drivers, the government made it easier for Americans to move by building a 41,000 mile-long network of highways that connected people and their homes with their jobs and communities. The population shift transformed the country’s social and political landscape as the suburban share of the nation’s population soared from 7 percent in 1910 to 32 percent by 1960. By 1970, the census declared that America had become a suburban nation.

1968 — Safety gains

Both the auto industry and Congress faced growing public pressure in the 1960s to do more about car safety. In 1968, seat belts became standard on all vehicles while car importers now had to conform with US safety standards. A couple of years later, the creation of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration ushered in crash testing and reporting. Then came the Holy Trinity - antilock brakes, airbags and electronic stability control - which all arrived in a fairly tight cluster in the 1990s and revolutionized auto safety. The safety improvements have helped to bring down the fatality rate from 44,599 in 1990 to around 35,000.

Garmin GPS system, photo Tara Hunt.

1991 Electronics enter the picture

Starting in 1991, carmakers began to incorporate more electronics to improve the performance of their vehicles. The shift began when California required all cars sold in the state to feature some self-diagnostic ability. By 1996, the Federal government required all cars to include a standard port to connect to for system diagnosis. Carmakers eventually added Bluetooth and GPS as well as intelligent technology features such as blind-spot detection, collision warning systems, and adaptive cruise control. The average vehicle now has about 50 computer processors that help control a variety of operations. Indeed, the market for automotive semiconductors is expected to top $36 billion next year.

2017 — ADAS breakthroughs and alternative fuels

In recent years, automakers have added features such as self parking, adaptive cruise control, and lane sensing technology to prevent drift that are all through to be components of tomorrow’s self-driving car. These sundry advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), although still in their early days, are moving consumers closer to the day when the steering wheel and other key driving functions get turned over to a computer. Tech improvements are also paying new dividends: Instead of relying solely on liquid hydrocarbons for fuel, they have deployed breakthrough battery technologies to develop hybrid and pure electric vehicles - including some that get more than 200 miles per charge.

Google’s self driving car. Via Flickr.

2020 — Autonomous driving - sooner than you think

Autonomous driving marks one of the biggest changes ever in our relationship with transportation - it may even get recorded by future historians as the biggest change in automotive since the Model T’s invention. Car accidents kill more than 35,000 people each year in the US and 1.25 million worldwide. Those numbers will likely drop dramatically once AD technology goes mainstream. The technology equips vehicles with the intelligence to diagnose situations and make the more complex driving decisions that human beings now make. The upshot: the car becomes a connected rolling space that transports people safely to places where they live, work and play. It also is a harbinger of change that promises to transform travel time into productive time - especially during longer distance commutes.

As Gartner notes, the car is becoming increasingly connected, intelligent and personal. That means a major change in the way we relate to automobiles. It will no longer be a machine that requires people to monitor what’s going on with the vehicle. And it’s a future that’s coming into focus - fast. Uber recently unveiled a self-driving pilot in Pittsburgh while Lyft is working on a plan to roll out self-driving cars in three phases starting this year, and even Ford has rebranded itself as a mobility company. Meanwhile, a self-driving truck hauled than 50,000 cans of Budweiser 120 miles from Fort Collins to a delivery spot in Colorado Springs.

While the dawn of the automobile shaped the 20th century living perhaps more than any other machine, the technology of the 21st century is shaping the automobile’s next chapter. As legacy car manufacturers retool into technology companies, every part of the mobility ecosystem has a future in question. What apps and services will be built into autonomous driving cars? Will mechanics become software engineers? Will car ownership become a thing of the past? Can traffic disappear?

Only time—and software—will tell.

Change is the only constant, so individuals, institutions, and businesses must beBuilt to Adapt. At Pivotal, we believe change should be expected, embraced and incorporated continuously through development and innovation, because good software is never finished.


How Automotive Defined the 20th Century was originally published in Built to Adapt on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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