Automobiles are vehicles that are powered by an internal combustion engine for the purpose of transporting people and cargo. The automobile is a central part of modern life and it can be difficult to imagine what human society would be like without it. Its importance is evident in the way that it has transformed cities, towns, and rural areas. It has revolutionized the design of homes, schools, and workplaces, as well as restructured the delivery of services such as police, fire, ambulance, and utility transport. The development of the automobile is also the origin of many modern industrial production techniques.
The automobile is a complex system with a large variety of functions that depend on the use to which it is put. Its major systems include the engine, transmission, electrical system, braking and steering, cooling and lubrication system, and chassis and body. The latter is analogous to the skeletal structure of the human body, and it provides safety, comfort, and protection for passengers. The arrangement and choice of components depends on the car’s intended use, such as a sedan for city driving or a sports car built for speed.
Invented and perfected in the late 1800s, the automobile has become the emblem of modernity, both its promise and its pitfalls. Exactly who invented the first automobile remains a subject of controversy. The first cars were essentially horse-drawn carriages with engines added, but in the first half of the twentieth century American companies developed mass-production methods that made them affordable to middle-class families. By the 1920s Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler were dominant manufacturers.
Automobile ownership is nearly universal in the United States, and its impact on life has been profound. In addition to the freedom of long-distance movement that it confers on its owners, the automobile encourages sprawl (i.e., sprawling, low-density urban development that degrades landscapes and increases traffic congestion).
The future of the automobile is uncertain, but the industry has been changing rapidly. New forces are reshaping the automotive world, from electronic media to robots. The era of the annually restyled road cruiser is giving way to an age in which automobiles will be designed for functionality, quality, and safety. As the auto-dependence of society reaches an all-time high, it is time to think differently about how we use these machines. The Automobile Age is fading into a new Age of Electronics.