Plan Insurance Blog

7 Motor Trade innovations you couldn't live without today

From wood to rubber to electrics – the automobile has come a very long way since its invention. And no doubt it will go much further in the next few years. We take the chance to look back on some of the tech developments in the motor trade that really wowed the punters.

These are the top innovations that we think were revolutionary – and helped pave the way to the car fuelled world we live in today. Better, quicker, safer, reliable and most of all – enjoyable!

Innovation number 1 – The Brake

Where today we hardly think about how our vehicle brakes actually work, back in the 1800s the early braking systems consisted of a wooden block on a lever, pulled by the driver. This would hit the steel rimmed wheels and grind to a halt.


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This was effective for horse or steam power, however the wooden block wouldn’t last for too long. Towards the end of the 1890s the Michelin brothers bought the rubber tyre into the mix. The rubber tyres against the wood did not have the same stopping effect.

Jumping forwards, we see the drum brake. Forefather of our modern-day brake, devised throughout the years 1899-1902 in a team effort by Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach and Louis Renault.

Without these first braking systems, cars might not stop today.

Innovation number 2 – The Indicator

Before clever flashing bulbs came the ‘Auto Signalling Arm’. Attached to the car, an electronically operated arm raised a sign to show the direction of the turn when the driver pressed a button.

Created in around 1914 by a Florence Lawrence, and later developed by a company in the United States into a flashing turn indicator. It wasn’t till 1938 that the first production car was fitted with electric indicators.

Innovation number 3 – Traffic Lights

The 1800s saw the need for a system to control horse-drawn carriages as they began to create traffic in the streets of London. In 1868 a signal was installed to help pedestrians cross safely, near Parliament on George Street and Bridge Street.

This system was called a semaphore – a tall post with moveable arms. These arms were moved to show when vehicles should stop. In the night time, tinted gas lights where used to show stop and go: red and green.


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Piccadilly Circus holds the title of being the first place in England to have electric traffic lights in 1926. Traffic lights have now been around for over 100 years.

How would cities cope without them now?!

Innovation number 4 – Radio

What did people do before radios? Make up songs – or their own talk channel?

If you were driving before 1930 then that’s what you’d have to do – drive in (noisy) silence. Come 1930s, however, Paul and Joseph Galvin along with William Lear developed the very first dashboard radio for cars, playing AM. Named the “Motorola” or motorised Victrola, this has got to be one of the major tech innovations for the motor trade.


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If you were in the UK, from 1938 cars fitted with a radio required a £1 radio licence!

FM radio had to wait another 22 years before it was installed, and we’ve never looked back. Even today where we have mp3 players, phones and CDs we’re still loyal to the in-car radio.

Traditional AM/FM radio accounted for 66.2% of all listening in 2015 [stats for Canada] and in the UK, 21% of all radio listening was listened to via in-vehicle radios in 2013.

Innovation number 5 – Power Steering

How would drivers feel without the power of hydraulics? Power steering had been in the minds of the car makers for decades before the feature became a common use for drivers.


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Autos of the 1950’s onwards were making use of this innovation. The first production vehicle to be fitted with the innovation that made it far easier to turn at slower speeds was the 1951 Chrysler Imperial.

Since then the power steering technology has moved on even further, with electric assist power steering available (EPS).

Innovation number 6 – Air Bags

This is something that we rarely think about when driving a vehicle – how it will react in an accident. We have peace of mind today that there’s many safety technologies fitted in cars that will help us in the case of a crash. Like insurance, airbags offer us the knowledge that something is in place to help us if things go wrong.

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However, it wasn’t until 1973 that the first passenger car came equipped with an airbag, and 1998 before dual airbags became mandatory. This seems like not that long ago!

Let’s be thankful that this innovation is now a compulsory feature in the motor trade!

Innovation number 7 – Self Parking Car

This motor trade innovation began in 1992 with the first concept car proposal by Volkswagen for a self parking car that moved sideways. This version never took off, but the idea that vehicles could do the manoeuvres for you did.


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In 2003 and 2004 Volvo and Toyota developed self-parking projects, with Toyota selling their Japanese Prius Hybrid with ‘Intelligent Parking Assist’. From then onwards, the technology advanced and Lexus, Ford and BMW joined in – and now this tech is still an innovation in the motor trade today.

However, according to a recent study, only 1 in 4 people would actually trust fully autonomous technology to park their car for them. Drivers still feel that they are better than the computer, even though the technology has proved to park with far less manoeuvres, less hits of the curb, and can do it 10% faster than drivers.

Even so, we think this technology should appear on this list. As cars could move themselves to park, cars could drive themselves, leading the way (perhaps) to an ‘autonomous’ driver-less future.

But that’s another story. Read it here.