First. We all know what it means. What we often don’t agree about is who can rightfully claim to be first. In the auto business, being first to innovate a new and desirable feature has competitive advantage—or not. It’s possible to be too early, to roll out the “new” before it’s ready or before the market is ready to receive it.
Consider Toyota’s advantage in the hybrid segment with its Prius. There were cars that combined electric and gasoline engines as early as 1896, and several were offered before 1910, but most needed the driver to choose one mode or the other. Toyota was “first” with a modern hybrid that automated the combined operation. But only in Japan, not in America (Honda’s Insight beat it to the punch here). Being early didn’t pay off right away. The world’s biggest car company was playing the long game, establishing its position and dominance years before selling hybrids was profitable. Now, every new hybrid has to start by answering the question: Is it better than a Prius?
At today’s rate of change, technology-based innovations are often only “first” by a few months . . . or not at all. Car companies develop new features hand-in-hand with suppliers, who may have multiple customers. Or the suppliers do the creating. Something that looks unique and fresh in the middle of one model year can be everywhere at the beginning of the next. Apps, especially; no one had Apple CarPlay 18 months ago. Now carmakers without it have to answer, “Why not?”
It was not always thus. Through the long history of automotive development, the company that had something new could boast on it for years while the rest of the industry beavered away trying to catch up.
Get into any modern vehicle, and you’re riding on the shoulders of inventors who, decades ago, came up with things we now find commonplace—say, intermittent wipers or electric window lifts—often for companies that failed anyway. Being first with the idea is one thing; turning it into profits is often another.
So we’ve gathered this list of genuine firsts. Don’t worry, we’re not going deep into the car’s innards. The catalog of “firsts” along the road between the horseless carriage and today’s earthbound spaceship is full of steps that came and went in their time—there was a “first” car with distributor points, and good riddance to it. Before we had six- and seven-speed manual gearboxes and automatics with eight, nine, even 10 ratios, someone had to be first to offer three, four, and five. So?
For our purposes here, imagine that you’ve stepped into a typical 2016 crossover with a modern 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, all-wheel drive, and the most common conveniences and safety features. When did that start? Who got there first? Often, as with rearview mirrors and lots of engine technologies, the “first” car with a feature was built for racing. Others appear on one-off dream or concept cars that may predict the future but rarely represent it. General Motors envisioned what we’d now call “stability control” on a Corvette concept in the 1980s. Self-driving automobiles? There were concept cars forecasting that in the 1950s. So, while acknowledging such racing and concept antecedents, we’ve defined “first” here as meaning that a car company went into production with the invention.