Automobiles are four-wheeled motor vehicles, usually powered by an internal combustion engine and using a volatile fuel. A complex technical system, the automobile employs a wide range of design functions and features. It is also one of the largest consumers of steel and petroleum, and has spawned new industries and services to support it. The automobile has become a force for change in twentieth century society, promoting urbanization and transforming the American economy.
The car is a symbol of independence and freedom, and provides the means to visit friends and family across town or the country. For those with children, the automobile allows parents to keep their eye on them as they drive, providing safety and security not available with other transportation options.
The first automobiles were designed by Karl Benz, an engineer in Germany, and by his successor, Henry Ford, who developed mass production techniques that enabled automobile companies to produce many cars at low cost, bringing them within the reach of ordinary people. The automobile revolutionized industry, technology and daily life in America and throughout the world. It changed living spaces, fostering suburban growth; it shifted industrial locations as civil engineering handled road construction and maintenance requirements; and it brought in new industries to supply the demand for petroleum and gasoline, rubber and plastics, and steel and aluminum. It created jobs in automobile manufacturing, as well as other related jobs in ancillary industries.
In the postwar period, technological stagnation coincided with market saturation, causing automobile production and innovation to slow down. Engineering was subordinated to the questionable aesthetics of nonfunctional styling, and quality deteriorated so that by the mid-1960s American-made cars were being delivered to retail buyers with an average of twenty-four defects per unit, many of them safety-related. Moreover, the higher unit profits that Detroit made on gas-guzzling “road cruisers” were made at the social costs of increased air pollution and a drain on dwindling world oil reserves. These factors opened the market to foreign manufacturers of functionally designed, economically efficient small cars.
Today, the automobile is a dominant mode of transportation worldwide, with over 1.4 billion automobiles in operation. Specialized automobiles are used in various settings and for specific purposes, such as crane vehicles in the construction industry, road rollers at road construction sites and fork-lift vehicles in warehouses. Emergency automobiles include fire engines, ambulances and police patrol vehicles. Cars are also the main means of transportation for people with disabilities, and there are specially-designed wheelchair-accessible vehicles that can be adapted to the needs of people who use them. People who don’t drive can still use a variety of alternative transportation modes, such as trains, buses, and taxis. People who are unable to drive can also choose to hire an escort, such as a chauffeur, or get assistance from a friend or relative. There are also special transport systems, such as air and sea travel. For the most part, however, the automobile is the dominant mode of ground transportation in industrialized countries around the world.