Hindsight being 20-20, we can look back on history and see the turning points, which are invisible to us as we're living through them. Automobiles have an approximately 120-year history (discounting some 18th century anomalies), and the milestones are now plain. Here's seventhat most historians would agree on:
1896: The Austrian firm Gräf & Stift builds a one-cylinder car with a De Dion-Bouton engine powering the front wheels. Today, the superiority of the design is recognized and a majority of cars have front-wheel drive. Muscle car types hate front-wheel drive, though.
1901: Herbert Franklin develops an air-cooled engine, the precursor of the power plant in millions and millions of Volkswagen Beetles.
1911: Charles Kettering, scrounging through parts found in an Ohio barn, invents the self-starter for Cadillac, making the crank unnecessary. Without that invention, electric cars (with a majority of the market before 1910) could have triumphed. We'd have cleaner skies, and very sophisticated battery cars today. Kettering also pioneered the diesel automotive, high-octane lead additives for gasoline (boo) and many other inventions.
1922: The first car radios were all experimental. George Frost, president of the Lane High School Radio Clubs in Chicago, put a radio in a Model T in 1922 and created a sensation. That same year, a Daimler was shown with a "Marconiphone" at the Olympic Motor Show in England. By 1927, the Transitone, arguably the first mass-produced car radio, had made its debut. By 1930, there were a bunch of aftermarket radios on the market, and automakers soon saw the virtue of offering them as original equipment.
1943: The year is somewhat arbitrary, because research in what became fuel injection actually goes back to 1883. But the first practical uses were during World War II, developed by Bosch for German warplanes and in a joint U.S.-British project for the Patton tank. The first-mass produced car with fuel injection was the 1976 Cadillac Seville, which benefited from collaboration between Bendix, Bosch and GM. Today, nearly every car has it, and the carburetor is a thing of the past.
1948: The Oldsmobile of that year introduces the Hydro-Matic, a true automatic. Today, manuals are disappearing, and the automatic rules the road.
2006: Li-Ion Motors, based in Vegas, works with the Kennedy Space Center to test the practicality of lithium-ion batteries for vehicles, placing them in a bunch of vehicles, including PT Cruisers, Smarts and all-terrain transporters. Today, only neighborhood electric vehicles are stuck with lead-acid chemistry — which powered those early EVs back in 1910.
History may be bunk, as Henry Ford said, but it's sure interesting.