Few inventions in modern times have had such a powerful effect on human life and on the world around us as the automobile. Entire societies have been reorganized around the power of rapid, long-distance travel conferred by cars and around the flexible distribution of goods made possible by trucks. But the automobile has also created problems, including a degraded environment and traffic congestion that slows vehicles to a crawl, thus immobilizing the very power of movement they provide.
The first automobiles were perfected in Germany and France toward the end of the nineteenth century by such men as Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, Nicolaus Otto and Emile Levassor. The most significant advance occurred in the 1860s when Siegfried Marcus invented an internal combustion engine fueled by gasoline. By the late nineteenth century, he had built a crude vehicle that did not yet have seats, steering or brakes, but it was capable of traveling at a modest three miles an hour.
Henry Ford revolutionized automobile production in the 1920s, developing a system that enabled him to manufacture many cars at a reasonable cost and with a high degree of quality control. His manufacturing innovations paved the way for a shared global automobile industry, as manufacturers in America and Japan developed mass-production plants.
As automobiles became more affordable, they reshaped American culture in many ways, giving families more freedom to choose how to spend their time and money. People could now go shopping, visit relatives, or attend concerts in suburban cities without having to wait for the next bus or train.
Despite the dangers inherent in driving, there are many advantages to owning your own car. For example, if you have your own car, you can make the choice to leave home early so you can beat rush-hour traffic. Or, you can decide to skip the grocery store and pick up a movie on your way home.
Automobiles are composed of thousands of parts that work together to carry passengers and cargo over long distances at high speeds with comfort and safety. These parts include the chassis, body, frame, transmission and drive train, engines and other electrical systems. Engineers and scientists have made many improvements to the performance of each component. For example, better engine lubrication and more efficient brakes have been developed. In addition, safety features such as airbags and seat belts have become standard equipment.
Even as newer technologies are introduced, the automobile continues to be a major part of most Americans’ lives. There are currently about 1.4 billion passenger cars on the roads worldwide, with most of them in North America. These cars travel an average of over three trillion miles (five trillion kilometres) each year, and they are a vital part of the economy. They create many jobs and contribute to the economies of the countries that produce them. They also consume large amounts of oil and other fuels and generate a great deal of pollution and noise.