Automobiles are wheeled passenger vehicles, usually powered by an internal combustion engine using a volatile fuel. They are a vital element of modern society. They offer people the ability to travel long distances, often independently of public transportation. Their presence also brings with it new businesses such as motels, restaurants and amusement parks that cater to travelers. They also create millions of jobs in factories that produce them, and at gas stations and restaurants where they are used. However, cars also pose many problems. They cause numerous deaths in traffic accidents, pollute the atmosphere with exhaust, and reduce urban housing space by taking up parking spaces. They also require expensive repairs and replacement parts, and they consume large amounts of energy, especially for the generation of electrical power.
The automobile was a key force for change in twentieth-century America. It accelerated the development of a consumer goods culture, providing a major source of income for many ancillary industries. In 1982 it was the single largest source of revenue in the country and employed more than one out of six American workers.
Invented in 1885 by Karl Benz, the modern automobile is an intricate system of interrelated mechanical subsystems. A car requires a variety of components to work properly, including engines, transmissions and differentials, brakes, steering, lights and air conditioning. All of these systems must be designed with specific performance requirements in mind, such as the vehicle’s intended use. Automobiles built for off-road use, for example, must have durable systems that are resistant to extreme overloads and severe operating conditions. Cars designed for high-speed limited-access highway systems, on the other hand, must provide increased passenger comfort options, optimized engine performance and optimized high-speed handling and stability.
In 1908 Henry Ford developed mass production techniques that revolutionized the automobile industry. He lowered the price of his Model T runabout to $575, less than the average annual wage in the United States at that time. This fueled a huge increase in sales and allowed more people to own automobiles than ever before.
The great demand for automobiles in the United States, with its vast land area and sparsely populated hinterland, also ensured that manufacturers could sell them at lower prices than Europe. Cheap raw materials also encouraged the mechanization of manufacturing processes, which eventually facilitated larger scale production.
The modern automobile is a complex technical system that employs thousands of individual components, each with specific design functions. Some of these components are advanced technology in themselves, such as electronic computers and high-strength plastics. Others are the result of other factors, such as government regulations and safety standards. Some are the result of economic forces, such as competition between manufacturers worldwide. Yet others are a result of social pressures, such as air pollution and the draining of dwindling oil reserves. All of these factors contribute to the ongoing evolution of automobile technology. They also help to shape the future of automotive designs, which will increasingly reflect societal preferences and environmental concerns.