A car, also called an automobile, is a motor vehicle for transporting passengers. Its distinguishing feature is that it has four wheels and an internal combustion engine fueled most commonly by gasoline, a liquid petroleum product. Unlike trucks or buses, which are primarily designed to carry cargo, cars are built for the transportation of people and can accommodate one to eight passengers. The scientific and technical building blocks for the modern automobile go back several hundred years, but it was not until the late 1800s that inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz developed the first practical gasoline-powered vehicles. These vehicles quickly overtook the market, and by 1920 had largely replaced horses on the streets of Europe and America.
Automobiles were expensive, but their popularity created new markets and industries. Businesses sprang up to manufacture parts and fuel. Services such as garages, gas stations, and convenience stores opened to support the new demand. The automobile reshaped American life, making it more convenient to work and shop, to visit friends and family, and to enjoy leisure activities. It also allowed families to live in urban areas and escape to the countryside or to travel across the country to spend time with loved ones.
For most Americans, owning a car is a fundamental part of their identity. The car has become synonymous with the idea of freedom, as well as an emblem of American exceptionalism and individualism. The automobile has transformed American culture, from the music and fashions to the food we eat. Roadside diners have become iconic, serving up such quintessential American dishes as hamburgers, french fries, and milk shakes.
The invention of the automobile accelerated the growth and expansion of the United States. It enabled people to connect with each other in ways that were previously impossible. As a result, the nation’s economy has grown faster than any other in the world.
However, the American love affair with the automobile has a downside. The automobile has given rise to new social problems such as traffic congestion, air pollution, and sprawl. The automobile has also contributed to the decline of public transportation systems. While some European countries are investing in high-speed rail systems, Americans have embraced the automobile. In 1980, 87.2 percent of American households owned one or more motor vehicles. In the past decade, the number of vehicles on the nation’s roads has increased dramatically. Engineering in the postwar era was subordinated to the questionable aesthetics of nonfunctional styling and higher unit profits, while safety and quality have suffered. In addition, gas-guzzling “road cruisers” are contributing to dwindling world oil reserves and global warming. Despite the shortcomings of the automobile, it remains a central force in American life.