133 years of petrol-driven cars

On January 29th, 1886, Karl Benz took out the first patent for a petrol-driven car. The Benz Patent-Motorwagen was a three-wheeled automobile with a rear-mounted engine. It had steel-spoked wheels and solid rubber tyres. It went on sale for 600 imperial marks, or just over $4,000 in today's money.

There had been earlier "horseless carriages," including Richard Trevithick's steam-driven vehicle, demonstrated in London in 1803, and said to be the first such vehicle. But the Motorwagen, with its lightweight 954cc single-cylinder four-stroke engine, represented a real breakthrough because of its energy efficiency. It ushered in the age of the private motor car.

Not surprisingly, the coach companies tried to use government to stop motor cars, much as cab companies try to stop Uber. In the UK early cars had to have a man walking in front with a red flag, until the law was repealed in 1896. Horses and carriages were expensive, but cars could be made cheaply, and after Henry Ford came along, they were.

Planners have never liked motor cars. They give the drivers too much independence, the freedom to go wherever and whenever they like. Planners prefer to move people together in units to preordained destinations. Planners prefer public transport for that reason, and many have tried to make life difficult for private motorists. Private cars have proliferated despite them.

No-one foresaw for many years the polluting gases that petrol engines emit, or the health-harming particulates of diesel engines. But they do now, and the age of the internal combustion engine that Benz heralded is drawing to a close. I have driven a Tesla for four years, and predict, along with others, that fossil fuel engines will be banned from cities within years. This does not mark the end of private transport, however, or of the freedom and opportunities it has brought to ordinary people for decades. On the contrary, self-driving cars and people-carrying drones will make it available to those unable to drive, and artificial intelligence will largely solve the problem of congestion and collisions.