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[Inventions That Changed the World]The French Connection in the Automobile’s Birth

[Inventions That Changed the World]The French Connection in the Automobile’s Birth

KIM Jae-Yun

Nov. 28, 2011


Welcome to our video program. I'm Jae-Yun Kim from the Industry and Strategy Department I.

The world's first modern automobile was created in 1886 by a German engineer, Karl Benz. Other German contemporaries, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach also built a four-wheel version around that time. Indeed, the origins of Mercedes Benz, now a car division of Daimler AG, are credited to these three men. Germany has since emerged as the technology leader in automobiles.

The earliest vehicles were in the form of bicycles fitted with internal combustion engines. While cars are popularly imagined as having evolved from horse-drawn carriages or trains, the invention of the automobile really owes itself to the bicycle. Bicycles were light-weight yet durable enough to run with a low-power engine. In addition, the bearings, chassis, and chains of bicycles were easily replaceable, making mass production feasible. The cars of Mercedes Benz, Peugeot, and Maybach all trace their heritage to the bicycle. The airline industry is no less indebted to the bicycle, as the Wright brothers invented their airplane based on bicycle technology.

As was the case with other new inventions, automobiles faced hurdles in creating a market. Benz concentrated his efforts in gaining the attention of engineers, whom he believed would understand the value of this complex machine, rather than the general public. Engineers, however, did not stand in line for the new creation. They showed interest in the product itself, but had little interest in purchasing one themselves.

Benz thought the market would naturally adopt new inventions, and was disappointed that the market did not understand the significance of the automobile.

What was the problem here? While engineers could easily understand the principles of motor vehicles, they were only interested in the technology, and not its value or utility. The problem here was the absence of any reason why ordinary people should buy it. It remained a key question as to how to narrow the gap between innovation and commercialization.

Automobiles were thus on the brink of disappearing in the very country of their birth. The challenge then came from France to take up the torch of the infant industry. During the 1890s, vehicle makers like Peugeot, Panhard et Levassor and Renault came online to reinvent the industry. First, they devised a strategy of linking automobiles to culture and people's everyday lives, rather than high technology. Show rooms were established along busy urban roads, and color catalogues and auto magazines were distributed. Taking a cue from the popularity of bicycle racing at the time, the French invented car racing. A women's car race was held, attracting attention by the media. French companies recast cars as a better version of the already familiar bicycles.

Second, French carmakers redefined their potential customers. At the time, French consumers were seeking new lifestyles. Carmakers targeted the rich, celebrities and women by advertising that driving would make them new trend setters. This was in stark contrast to German carmakers that targeted engineers and the technically savvy as primary customers.

Finally, French carmakers contributed to creating infrastructure. France was the first country to introduce driver's licenses and license plates in an effort to cope with potential problems when people actually drove their cars. In contrast, the British passed the “Red Flag Act” to protect horse drawn carriages and regulate car driving. France did not invent automotive technology but created the culture and ecosystem that enabled it to become the world's largest car producer by the early 1900s.

Many inventions fail because of a failure to distinguish between goals and means. France succeeded by reinterpreting the new technology from a customer-oriented perspective and marketing to ordinary people.

The French auto industry faced another hurdle, however. Each car maker had a different car structure and release time. Such issues are frequently seen in the early stages of new products entering the market, but customers may hesitate to buy because of fear of their purchase becoming obsolete.

Panhard et Levassor came to solve this problem. Today, Panhard et Levassor are no longer a household name because they stopped car production in 1967 after a merger with PSA. This carmaker, however, is credited with inventing the structure that became the basis of today's cars.

The first cars started from bicycles and are quite different from today's cars. For example, the car Benz created in 1893 put its engines and driver's seat at the back of the car. As with a passenger car in a train, people were seated facing each other with the driver in the back. Panhard et Levassor redesigned the structure from the ground up. It put the engine in the front, used a clutch in the gear shift, and created a power train for rear-wheel drive. This helped solve the problem of cooling of the engine, while improving the car's center of gravity to facilitate high-speed driving. This is why we call cars we drive today Systeme Panhard.

By 1901, almost all carmakers were using Systeme Panhard, enabling cars to have similar structures. Customers could better compare cars in their purchases, which led to expansion of the market, eventually leading to 120 years of growth of the auto industry.

The key to inventions of new products is technology, but it is equally important to create a culture that can absorb the product when it comes to commercialization. Establishing new inventions also requires rethinking from the ground up that departs from existing frameworks.

Thank you for watching. I'm Jae-Yun Kim.

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