Automobiles are wheeled motor vehicles that run primarily on roads and carry people rather than cargo. They typically have four wheels and are constructed to seat one to six people. Although a variety of definitions have arisen, most agree that automobiles must be designed to operate on roads and must use an internal combustion engine that burns fuel to generate mechanical energy. Most automobiles are powered by gasoline, but some use electric motors.
The development of the automobile has transformed many aspects of American life, from how people work and play to where they live and where they vacation. Today, car ownership is practically universal in America and the automobile industry is the largest in the world. It is the most important consumer of steel and oil and provides one out of every six jobs in America. The automobile has helped create a new consumer society in which Americans spend the majority of their time and money buying goods.
While the automobile has brought many benefits, it has also created problems. Automobile accidents, traffic congestion, and air pollution have become major social issues, and the use of fossil fuels is creating serious environmental concerns.
In the first decades of the 20th century, automobiles allowed more Americans to move beyond rural areas and into urban areas. This increased mobility fueled the growth of cities and changed the economy. It gave people more freedom and time to relax or pursue hobbies outside of work. People could go shopping, attend movies, and visit friends and relatives.
During this period of change, the automobile became an icon and symbol of progress. In 1920, it accounted for almost half of the value of all products manufactured in America and was the backbone of a consumer-oriented society. The automobile prompted the formation of many new ancillary industries, including steel and oil companies, and revolutionized transportation and communication.
The origins of the automobile are a matter of controversy. Although some historians have credited Leonardo da Vinci for designs of motor vehicles, most consider Karl Benz to be the inventor of the true automobile in 1885 or 1886. The 1901 Mercedes, which incorporated many of the features later adopted by modern cars, is considered to be the first modern automobile. But it was not as well-designed as Ransom E. Olds’ curved-dash, tiller-steered 1904 Oldsmobile, which offered moderate prices and easy maintenance.
By 1960, the automobile had dominated American life and was rapidly becoming a worldwide industry. However, automobiles are gradually fading into the background as America becomes more dependent on electronic media and other forms of personal transportation. As the era of the automobile begins to fade, it is being replaced by new forces that are charting America’s future. The new Age of Electronics, with its potential for innovation and invention, will likely overtake the aging and increasingly costly automobile. This will lead to an era in which the car may no longer act as a force for progressive change.