Is Tomorrow’s Car Just Another Case of History Repeating Itself

London, 1896.

The urban road was dominated by horse-drawn carriages, but that was about to change. Although motor vehicles were already on the horizon, few people realized how significant they would be. Ten years before the invention of the first automobile, Carl Benz had already made it a reality. In 1888, his wife Bertha Benz took it on its inaugural long distance journey. Motor cars were becoming more popular in Europe and the USA. Interest was also growing in Britain. There were restrictions in place at that time on British roads, including speed limits of 2mph through towns and the famous’red flag rule’ which required that any vehicle be preceded by someone waving a red signal to warn others.

Although this rule may seem extreme, many people were concerned about safety and were worried that it would cause fatalities on their streets. These rules needed to be changed if Britain was to have a successful motoring industry. Political lobbying began. The Horseless Carriage Exhibition was a landmark in that era. It was held at the location it is today.

Imperial College London

In May 1896. Frederick Simms, an inventor and talented engineer, organized the event. Harry
The exhibition was organized by a cycling magnate and later convicted fraudster, who brought state-of the-art vehicles to the city to demonstrate to the public and government how important automobiles can be. The exhibition, which was part of lobbying and public relations, was remarkable in achieving a significant change in road rules.

This period in motoring history was new to me, and I immediately thought of the similarities between today’s driverless cars. The technology is the first. LIDAR, for instance, uses lasers to measure distances between objects. It can be mounted on the roof of a driverless vehicle and scan its surroundings to build an image.
The current LIDAR system for’s is

It is extremely expensive

It works well, though. In many cases, “the tech” is ready to go just like the engines in 1896. Then there is the question of trust. Be honest, how comfortable would it be?


Imagine sitting in the driver’s chair of a car and not being able control it. It’s probably about the same as those who first rode in carriages that could move independently of horses. The legislation is the final hurdle. The laws that govern autonomous vehicles are either not yet in place or poorly defined, so they can only be tested on public roads under limited conditions. This is a major stumblingblock for their development.

Participating in the 2015 Mobile World Congress

Carlos Ghosn is the chief executive officer of Nissan-
According to, it will take a decade to address the regulatory issues involved in driverless cars.

There are many parallels between now and then. Even back in 1896 there wasn’t consensus on how to power automobiles. However, this is not to suggest that motorized means of moving stuff weren’t available – steam engines were already powering the Industrial Revolution for over 120 years. Every steam engine needed a team; the stoker heated the coal to produce steam and kept it boiling, while the steersman maintained the vehicle’s course and the brakeman controlled its speed. It was revolutionary to think that an engine could be managed only by one person.

Benz’s original engine was an internal combustion engine. This involves injecting a small amount (petrol in this instance) into an enclosed space and igniting it, releasing a lot of energy. Other early manufacturers tried everything, from peanut oil to coal dust. The second half of the 19 th century saw developments in batteries that made them suitable for motor vehicles. They also had the added benefit of being quiet and clean, making them very popular. There has been no significant change. Hybrid and electric vehicles are big business these days – Toyota sold their eight millionth hybrid vehicle in July 2015, while Tesla received $10 Billion of pre-orders in two days earlier this year. We’ll be discussing in a future article how many of these models can only be as green as the electricity grid that they plug into. There are also fuel made from waste and, perhaps, the most futuristic, motors that use hydrogen.

The reality is that there is no perfect solution. Every situation is unique and presents its own challenges. Despite the fact that automobile engineering has evolved over the past 120 years it seems like the arguments have not.

PS: Anyone living in London or nearby will have the opportunity to see early automobiles at this weekend’s Imperial Festival (Sun 7th and Sunday 8th May). More than 20 vehicles from different eras, including those powered by electricity, steam, and petrol, will be displayed at the university’s science festival. Imperial College London researchers will be displaying their latest innovations, including miniaturized turbochargers that can cut fuel consumption by as much as 30% and students who build electric and hydrogen-powered cars. You can find all details at the festival link.

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