Automobiles are wheeled passenger vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine using a volatile fuel. They are a major mode of human transportation and the backbone of modern consumer goods-oriented society. The automotive industry ranks first in value of production in the United States and is one of the chief consumers of steel and petroleum products. It has revolutionized ancillary industries and created new ones.
The scientific and technical building blocks of the automobile go back hundreds of years. Leonard Bruno, in Science and Technology Firsts (Detroit, c1997), reports that a Jesuit missionary named Ferdinand Verbiest may have built the first self-propelled road vehicle in 1672, while Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot was credited with building the first steam car around 1765. In the late 1860s Siegfried Marcus developed the first gasoline powered automobile. This crude machine lacked seats, steering and brakes, but it was the world’s first successful internal combustion engine vehicle.
Henry Ford’s invention of the moving assembly line in 1910 greatly accelerated industrial manufacturing, and his Model T runabout, which cost less than the average annual salary in 1912, made mass personal “automobility” a reality. It took many decades for the automobile to become a dominant factor in American life.
The automobile helped create new services, such as gasoline stations, parking lots and traffic signals. It also gave rise to recreational activities, such as amusement parks and hotels, restaurants and fast food chains. It brought people closer together and facilitated the spread of ideas, including new political movements such as the push for women’s suffrage, which was largely conducted from automobiles. At the same time, the automobile brought harm to the environment through exhaust pollution and the destruction of undeveloped land. It also created new jobs, such as car dealers and repair shops.
It is difficult to imagine life in the twentieth century without a car, which has become a symbol of the American dream of individual freedom and mobility. The automobile is the primary way most families now commute to work and school, and it has transformed many social and economic patterns. In the United States, for example, suburbs sprung up in the wake of the automobile, as households moved away from city centers to live in houses with green lawns and quiet streets.
In the last thirty or forty years, advances in electronic computers and high-strength materials have made cars lighter and more fuel efficient. The next stage in the evolution of the automobile may be the introduction of hybrid vehicles, which combine the power of an electric motor with that of a gas engine. This could lead to cars that are more energy efficient and reduce pollution while still providing the freedom and flexibility of conventional automobiles.
In the future, it is likely that automobiles will continue to play a vital role in people’s lives. But they will become more environmentally friendly, and they will probably be safer, too. These cars will be designed to meet a wide variety of personal preferences, and they may be driven by artificial intelligence.