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In my weekly column, I’ve been taking a look back a few decades to look at how innovation has evolved in the automobile industry. You might be surprised to learn that some of the cars that didn’t make it to the mass assembly line were actually quite advanced for their time:

From the perfection of the assembly line by Henry Ford at the turn of the 20th century to today’s push for development of practical electric motor technology, cars have always been at the forefront of innovation.

The list of innovations would be too numerous to mention with tens of thousands of patents underlying the development of today’s automobile.

Before the gasoline or diesel vehicle engine there were other types of motors along the way, including steam and many attempts at electric-powered vehicles. Even as far back as the early 1900s there were electric vehicles that had a range of almost 20 miles and could top 14 miles per hour. Although they worked well enough to be the dominant type of vehicle motor, the early models had dozens of heavy lead acid battery cells and generated only a couple of horsepower.

And even though the concept of a hybrid vehicle seems like a modern one, hybrids were being built as far back as 1911 by companies like the Woods Motor Vehicle Co. of Chicago.

Part of the motivation in those days wasn’t alternative fuels, but the fact that electric engines were less noisy, smoother running and didn’t smell bad. It also turns out that electric vehicles didn’t require gear changes, nor a hand crank to start. Since most roads of the day were in town, the limited range of electric vehicles were an ideal fit for the time.

As roads in the country began to be built, and as problems with gasoline engine transmissions were solved through innovations from people like Henry Ford, the gasoline engine began to dominate for the rest of the century.

In the 1990s, legislative and regulatory actions led to renewed interest in electric vehicles. Electric cars began to appear and with improvements in battery technology and materials engineering, practical models are being developed today, although they are still expensive.

Tesla motors has rolled out an all-electric sports car, and BMW has displayed their i3 scheduled for 2013 production. The i3 is an impressive all-electric vehicle made of lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum that is said to have a 100-mile range.

Automobile innovations haven’t been limited to the motor or drive train, but also to safety equipment and operation. The lives saved with the invention of safety belts, airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control and crash-absorbing vehicle design can’t be understated.

Who knows what other innovations the future will bring? I fully expect electric cars will become commonplace as problems are solved regarding range, charging times, and battery life and replacement cost. Even the quietness of the engine can be seen as a problem for pedestrians who might not hear an electric vehicle approaching.

Beyond the obvious and probably necessary evolution to the electric car, some other inventions that are fun to think about include practical airless tires, smart heads-up displays to warn of potential hazards ahead, and eventually even a true autopilot.

A smart, safe, efficient pilotless car — that’s an innovation we would all like to see.

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