Automobiles are wheeled passenger vehicles that use an internal combustion engine for propulsion. They are the dominant mode of transportation on the world’s roads, with most cars used for passenger transport. In addition to the body and chassis, automobiles have a number of components including an engine, transmission, wheels, steering system, suspension, air conditioning, safety systems, electronics and control systems. The branches of engineering that focus on the design and manufacture of automobiles are known as automotive engineering or car engineering.
The automobile revolutionized American life and culture, creating new industries and changing social norms. It led to suburbia, the interstate highway system, drive-in movies and drive-through restaurants. The automobile made it possible for families to travel long distances and to rediscover pristine natural landscapes. It gave teenagers freedom of movement and helped to develop relaxed sexual attitudes. It also changed the way families and friends lived together.
Karl Benz, an engineer from Germany, invented the first automobile in 1885. He designed a small, four-wheeled vehicle that could be powered by either gasoline or electricity. It was very expensive at the time but became more affordable with the development of industrial manufacturing methods by Henry Ford. His assembly line production system made it possible to produce thousands of automobiles at once and to lower the price until it was affordable for middle class families.
After World War II the automobile dominated the United States. Automakers shifted production from civilian models to military vehicles for the war effort. The automobile was a major industry for the country and spawned dozens of spin-off industries such as rubber, steel, glass and vulcanized rubber. Road construction and design was another huge industry.
By the end of the 1960s, market saturation and technological stagnation occurred simultaneously with rising questions about the environmental and social costs of automobiles. Engineers were subordinated to questionable aesthetics and non-functional styling, while quality and safety suffered. Gasoline prices rose and questions were raised about the pollution of air and draining world oil reserves. American car manufacturers were losing the market to Germany and Japan with their fuel-efficient, functionally designed, well-built small cars.
Today, most automobiles are powered by gasoline, a fossil fuel that releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Many drivers try to limit their greenhouse emissions by driving a fuel-efficient car and keeping it well maintained. This is not as effective as using alternative forms of transportation but it’s a step in the right direction. In addition, there is a movement to replace the traditional internal combustion engine with electric or hybrid engines. Those technologies will help reduce pollution and energy consumption. There are also plans to build electric and autonomous automobiles that will run on a renewable source such as wind or solar power. This will make a big difference in the environment and in human health. The future of automobiles looks bright, but we have to be careful not to overextend their limits.