We’re driven by a primal need to find new resources and advance ourselves. Prehistoric humans sought better hunting grounds. The Wright brothers took that intrepid first flight. Today’s inventors pursue hovercraft and advanced space travel. They embody the human desire for progress that keeps us moving and seeking what’s over the horizon.
And even as we figure out new ways to travel, we constantly try to improve our current methods – making them faster, safer, more efficient and more reliable.
According to Ray Eby, vice president of 3M Automotive Electrification, we are in the midst of increasing change and can expect more in the next few years. “Changes that are happening in the automotive industry are driven by environmental and safety demands and the need to provide users with the experience they expect,” he says.
Travel, beyond walking, started with people riding horses, donkeys or camels, and using rivers and sleighs to transport their worldly goods. Then people realized they could hook horses to sleighs to be even more efficient.
In 3500 B.C. people figured out how to connect a wheel to a cart. Which, as livescience.com points out, is more complex than you might think. People discovered that rolling something on a log or a round object helped to move it along, but developing a way to attach it to a stable platform with an axle took some ingenuity.
Carts, wagons and chariots became a popular method of locomotion in the following years. The Greeks figured out how to add in gears for extra power, and the Romans built roads to make travel easier.
For a long time, the world was content to plod along, pulling their wheeled vehicles with humans or animals as the engine. Then, in a burst of innovation following the industrial revolution, inventors developed new ways to travel in the form of bicycles, trains, steam-powered boats, cars and airplanes in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Since then, we have worked to perfect those modes of travel. And while there has been some focus on other forms of travel – including making the giant leap into space in the late 1960s – there aren’t yet new travel options available to the general public.
We have continued to focus a lot of innovation and passion into one particular mode of transportation – the automobile.
Inventors in France and Germany were the first to come up with a working automobile in the late 1800s, but manufacturers in the United States were quick take over. Henry Ford came up with his own “horseless carriage” that he refined into the Model T. His greatest innovation was developing the assembly line to mass produce cars. By the 1920s three automotive manufacturers in the U.S. were leading the way.
While car makers were growing, 3M was also growing and finding solutions for manufacturers as they ran into snags.
3M inventors came up with a new-to-the-world abrasive cloth in 1914, and in the early 1920s, product developers saw a need for waterproof sandpaper to solve a long-standing problem of dust.
An enterprising inventor, Francis Okie, knew that dust was a distraction and, worse, it could be a serious health problem in manufacturing. The primary answer was using water to keep the dust down, but the sandpaper would fall apart when it became wet. Francis developed the first waterproof sandpaper and sought out help from 3M. The company partnered with him, bought his invention and hired him in 1921.
This invention opened the doors for 3M to work with auto companies. Richard Drew, a banjo player who loved science, joined 3M to work in the lab and test sandpaper. He was visiting automotive manufacturers to hand out samples of 3M’s waterproof sandpaper at the time when two-tone cars were becoming popular. He noticed painters were struggling to use newspaper and glue to paint vehicles. The glue and newspaper either didn’t seal effectively, or it stuck to the car and ruined the paint.
Drew went back to the lab with an idea. He experimented with various resins, oils and gums, and found a solution in 1925 – what we know today as Scotch® Brand Masking Tape.
Since that time, the automotive industry has continued to make improvements, like the automatic transmission in the 1930s. After that, there were only minor improvements for decades. As more cars got on the road, people became unhappy with safety flaws and demanded safer cars. Many cities also saw air pollution caused by high emissions. Gasoline prices escalated in the 1970s, and people wanted more fuel-efficient, cleaner-running vehicles. While U.S. car makers struggled, German and Japanese automakers designed well-built, small, fuel-efficient cars that grew in popularity.
In the 1980s and beyond, U.S. car manufacturers retooled their operations to be more efficient and began to compete by developing cars that were safer, less polluting and had better fuel economy. Those motivating forces are still driving manufacturers today, along with cost and features for comfort. And 3M is continuing to partner with them. 3M technology and science are hard at work in the form of tapes and adhesives that work with lightweight materials, high-strength glass bubbles to reduce the weight of some car components, films that allow for thinner glass and reduce the need for air conditioning and acoustic absorption materials.
Transportation is going through a period of change right now. As we move along in the age of connectivity, our means of transportation are impacted by new thinking and new tech. Electric and autonomous vehicles are already here and are continuously evolving. Many cars today have self-driving features for steering, braking and accelerating, like lane-departure warning systems and adaptive cruise control.
Ray Eby, vice president of 3M Automotive Electrification, makes the connection to the rapid advances in mobile phone technology. “People expect cars to have the latest technology, just like their phones,” he says. “It’s forcing manufacturers to speed up their design cycles.”
As manufacturers and governments improve reliability in cars and build smarter infrastructure, change may come sooner than we expect.
“I think fully-autonomous vehicles will come sooner than many people expect. If you look at a vehicle, sales people will talk a lot about the autonomous features,” says Ray. “What’s exciting is that the industry is changing with where users want it to go. 3M’s been there and working with the industry for over 100 years, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.