The History of Car Safety Technology: Part 1

The History of Car Safety Technology: Part 1

Published on 23 January 2017

Brakes: the most fundamental automotive safety technology

In the first in a series of three articles, guest blogger Mathew Young gives us the low-down on the history of brake technology.

Ever since the invention of the automobile in 1886 by Karl Benz, engineers have worked tirelessly to make driving a safe endeavour. Although safety equipment doesn't always get the same attention as high-performance engines, the development of reliable safety technology has been one of the key pillars supporting the ascendance of the automobile. Tracing the evolution of the many safety technologies that we take for granted can give drivers a greater appreciation for everything involved in keeping them safe while they drive.


Brakes are the most fundamental automotive safety technology. Brakes have come a long way since their origin, evolving from rough-cut blocks of wood to precision-engineered systems with advanced computer controls.

  • The earliest braking systems were simple blocks of wood, operated by levers, that pressed on the steel rims of early cars and slowed them down through friction. These became obsolete after the introduction of rubber tyres in 1890.
  • Drum-based systems were first introduced in 1902 by Louis Renault. These systems allowed vehicles to stop without damaging their rubber tyres.
  • Four-wheel hydraulic systems were invented by Malcom Lougheed in 1918. Previous brakes relied on simple mechanical force to apply braking power, so these hydraulic systems were a major step forward.
  • Power brakes were first thought of back in 1903, but the first production car to offer these systems was the 1928 Pierce-Arrow. Power brakes use a vacuum pump, powered by the intake manifold, to give the driver a power boost and make it easier to apply the brakes.
  • Disc brakes were first invented in 1902; although theoretically superior to other brakes, technical challenges made them inconvenient and ineffective until 1964, when Studebacker introduced a power braking system for the Avanti.

Brakes themselves haven't changed much since the introduction of disc brakes, but braking control systems have made brakes safer and more effective. Antilock braking systems, or ABS, were the first major innovation; they were first introduced in the early 1970s, and the 1978 Mercedes Benz W116 became the first production car to offer ABS as a standard feature. These systems prevent wheels from locking up during emergency stops, allowing drivers to maintain more control when coming to a full stop. Other braking advances include: electronic brake force distribution, which intelligently shifts braking power depending on the weight distribution of the vehicle; brake assist, which supplies extra braking pressure when the vehicle senses an emergency braking situation; and regenerative braking, which captures some of the energy lost to braking to recharge the vehicle's batteries.

About the author:

Matthew Young is a Boston based freelance writer. As an aspiring automotive journalist looking to make a name for himself in the industry, he is passionate about covering anything on 4 wheels. When Matthew is not busy writing about cars or new emerging tech, he usually spends time fiddling with his camera and learning a thing or two about photography. You can tweet him @mattbeardyoung

Catch the second installment in the series soon.

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The History of Car Safety Technology: Part 1