Evolution of Transport Technology since the 18th Century

Evolution of Transport Technology since the 18th Century

Since the 18th century, mechanization allowed each transportation mode to experience an evolution in motive methods and vehicles. New engine technologies offer the ability to be used across several modes with specific adaptations. The first most meaningful innovation was the steam engine that improved the performance of the maritime and railway modes at the end of the 18th century. The bulk of a steam engine made it impractical to be applied to road transportation.

The internal combustion engine (ICE) in the late 19th century brought the large-scale mechanization of transportation modes, especially road transport. It was followed by the diffusion of cars, buses, and trucks supported by the construction of vast highway networks. For rail, diesel locomotives replaced steam engines, improving power and range. However, the development of high-speed rail (HSR) relied on the electric motor due to its capacity to generate a velocity that an internal combustion engine would be unable to.

For air transport, the internal combustion engine (piston engine) allowed heavier planes and the emergence of the first commercial services in the 1920s. Innovations in air propulsion lead to jet planes that could quickly transport a large number of passengers over long distances. Then, wide-body jets (such as the B747) enabled to improve further the scale at which air transportation could carry passengers and freight.

The technological evolution of maritime transportation impacted more substantially vehicles than their speed, particularly their economies of scale. Metallic hulls and fuel propulsion enabled the growth of ship size as well as their specialization (oil, freight, containers). The introduction of the containership in the 1970s allowed a versatile cargo carrier that continuously benefited from economies of scale and supported the rapid development of the global economy.

In the 21st century, the automation of transport systems is unfolding, including its terminals. This improves their reliability and performance while reducing their operating costs. Self-driving vehicles and drones are starting to be introduced.