Automobiles are the most common mode of transportation on the planet. These vehicles make up more than half of all road and rail traffic, delivering us to work, school, appointments, and anywhere else our life takes us. In addition, the automobile has spawned a whole host of new industries and services that have transformed the way we live and work.
In the United States, automobile ownership has become almost universal and is one of the driving forces behind the rapid expansion of a consumer goods-oriented society. The automobile has also made the nation’s vast land area more accessible, encouraging a growing number of rural inhabitants to move from their traditional villages and towns to cities and suburbs. It has also become the largest consumer of petroleum products and of steel and other industrial commodities, generating enormous profits for the companies that supply it with its raw materials and fuel.
The scientific and technical building blocks of the automobile go back several hundred years. By the late 1700s and early 1800s, steam and electric powered cars had reached the point of being able to travel at high speeds. However, they were expensive and limited in range. Karl Benz, a German engineer, is credited with inventing the gas-powered automobile around 1885. He designed a car that was cheaper and easier to operate than previous models. Henry Ford came along soon after and revolutionized the way cars are made by implementing the assembly line. This enabled him to make cars that were cheaper and more convenient than previous models and opened up the market for middle class families to be able to afford automobiles.
Today, modern automobiles are complex technical systems that have numerous subsystems with specific design functions. The automobile has changed the way we live and work, and has opened up a new world of leisure activities and services for the entire family. It is a symbol of freedom and wealth and has become a major part of the social fabric of America and other countries.
At the same time, the automobile is a major contributor to air pollution and global oil shortages. Its higher unit profits are often at the expense of engineering, and quality is deteriorating rapidly. The automobile is at a crossroads, and its days as a progressive force for change may be waning. New forces are emerging to take its place.