The automobile, or motor car, has been one of the defining forces of modern life. In a nation where it is almost universally owned, the automobile has made modern society seem unthinkable without its convenient and speedy means of transportation.
Originally perfected in Germany and France during the late 1800s, the automobile came to dominate American life in the first half of the 20th century. The invention of the gas-powered internal combustion engine gave cars greater range and a new level of speed that opened up broader opportunities for commerce, leisure, and personal freedom. The innovations of Henry Ford revolutionized industrial manufacturing with mass production techniques that enabled car prices to fall far below average income levels.
While some definitions of the automobile vary, most agree that it is a wheeled motor vehicle intended for transporting people and carrying goods. Automobiles are usually powered by an internal combustion engine fueled most often by gasoline, but can also be powered by electricity, compressed natural gas (CNG), or another fuel. Despite their size, power, and speed, automobiles are relatively safe in most conditions. Nevertheless, like all forms of motorized transportation, they pose risks to those on board and to the surrounding environment.
Automakers strive to keep pace with consumer demand, developing increasingly complex vehicles with a wide array of features and options to attract buyers and differentiate their models from rivals. They have innovated with electric ignition systems, the electric self-starter invented by Charles Kettering, and four-wheel independent suspension, among other advances. Some manufacturers also experimented with pistonless rotary engines, but none has achieved commercial success.
A major component of the modern automobile is its transmission system. This consists of a series of gears that transmit engine torque to the wheels by varying the speed and direction of the shafts. This enables the automobile to turn in a tight curve or accelerate out of a turn.
Automobiles must be designed to withstand harsh operating conditions, ranging from off-road driving on dirt or rocky terrain to high-speed limited-access highways. Design factors include durability and simplicity, resistance to overloads, and high-speed handling and stability.
With its vast territory and sparse population, the United States provided a great market for automobiles and helped develop them faster than European nations. The nation’s manufacturing tradition, cheap raw materials, and the absence of tariff barriers encouraged large-scale production. In 1902, Ransom Eli Olds debuted the assembly line concept at his Oldsmobile factory, and this method of production was adopted by Henry Ford in the 1910s. These developments, along with an unprecedented seller’s market, enabled cars to be produced at much lower prices than in Europe and became widely affordable. This led to the growth of mass personal “mobility” in the United States, which is a key driver of its economic and social development. Currently, the automobile is being challenged by emerging forces, including electric vehicles, alternative fuels, and new modes of mobility and connectivity. It remains to be seen whether these technologies can replace the traditional automobile in urban areas.