Automobiles are a crucial element of modern life. They provide mobility and freedom from dependence on others for transportation, facilitate the distribution of goods and services across large distances, and enable families to live in a wide range of locations. But they also create problems, notably environmental degradation, traffic congestion, and the destabilization of communities.
The automobile was first invented in the late 1800s and perfected in Germany and France by engineers such as Karl Benz, but American businessman Henry Ford developed manufacturing techniques that made cars affordable for middle-class families. By the 1920s, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler dominated the industry.
The basic design of a motor vehicle is complicated by the fact that the car must accommodate passengers and cargo, be able to travel over long distances at high speeds, and respond rapidly to road conditions, including braking and steering. This complexity necessitates the use of a multitude of sophisticated and interrelated systems. Each system performs a specific function, and the interaction of these functions determines the car’s performance.
Thousands of individual parts make up the modern automobile, but its structure is organized into several semi-independent systems with common features. For example, the engine, the heart of the automobile, contains a series of cylinders with pistons that are driven by fuel-burning combustion and tubes that supply coolant and lubricating oil. The engine also contains an analogous circulatory system for delivering fuel and removing waste gases.
An automobile’s auxiliary systems, which include transmission and power steering, are designed to perform specific functions under various road conditions. These auxiliary systems are regulated by laws governing safety, air pollution, and energy consumption. The automobile industry is constantly developing new technology to improve its vehicles.
In the twentieth century, automobiles transformed society by providing a means of personal mobility for millions of Americans and by enabling the efficient distribution of consumer goods. They have become the backbone of a consumer goods-oriented economy and are the primary source of jobs in many industrialized nations. The automobile also promotes sprawl, a type of low-density urban development that degrades landscapes and causes traffic congestion. In addition, the automobile has changed leisure activities, spawning a number of new recreational industries and promoting such popular destinations as amusement parks and fast-food restaurants. Despite these problems, most Americans still consider themselves auto-dependent, and they look to the future with great confidence in the continuing technological advance of the automobile. The era of the automobile is melding into a new age of electronic media and the computer. These new forces may be even more powerful and potentially destructive. The automobile is one of the greatest accomplishments of industrialized man, but it has also been a major cause of social change and a major source of economic and environmental problems. As the automobile continues to be reshaped by new technology, its place in the social order will be redefined. Adapted from the Reader’s Companion to American History, by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers, 1991.