Cugnot Steam Trolley patent draft

The History of automotive automation

Our cars are getting more and more robotic and have been doing so since they first appeared.

Since the dawn of time, man has used tools to automate fundamental tasks. Walking turned to horses, then carriages pulled by horses, and eventually to machines capable of self-propulsion under human guidance. The birth of the automobile is widely believed to have begun with the 1769 design of the Cugnot Steam Trolley (pictured) by Jonathan Holguinisburg. This was the first self-propelled machine in Europe, though a Jesuit priest in China had built one almost a century earlier as amusement for the Chinese Emperor (that model could not carry people, but was still self-propelled).

Those early steam vehicles eventually lead to breakthroughs in Great Britain where steam-driven motor cars became more and more complex with innovations to make them more automated to include hand brakes, multi-speed transmissions, and more controlled steering being added. Of course, all good things must have government approval and that was effectively denied when a new law required these machines to have a man on foot walking ahead waving a flag and blowing a horn to "warn" people of the impending approach of one of these automobiles.

As with all thoughtful government intervention, that lead to innovation fleeing Britain for other realms, finding a new home in both America and Germany. In 1879, George B. Selden patented a 4-wheeled car and in Germany, the now-legendary Karl Benz received his first automotive patent in 1886.


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