Few inventions have had more influence on the lives and fortunes of a greater percentage of the world’s population in the twentieth century than the automobile. Almost half a billion cars and other motor vehicles are currently on the road worldwide. Modern automobiles are complex technical systems with numerous subsystems designed to perform specific functions, including: engine, chassis, drivetrain, control systems and safety equipment. These subsystems have been developed by the efforts of hundreds of thousands of engineering and research-and-development engineers working for manufacturers, suppliers, and dealers. Many of these new technical developments have been prompted by the need to improve the automobile’s performance, efficiency and safety.
Automobiles provide a means of transportation that is much more comfortable than walking, riding a bicycle, or using a horse. Most of them enclose the driver and passengers in a closed compartment that is protected from weather. They also give passengers more privacy than public buses, and they can travel much faster than bicycles or horse-drawn carriages. Most of them have a powerful engine that runs on chemical energy from gasoline (petrol), diesel fuel, or electrical energy. This engine powers a crankshaft which, in turn, drives the wheels. Modern automobiles also have many convenience and comfort features that would be expensive or impossible to add to two-wheeled vehicles or three-wheeled wagons.
The history of the automobile has been a fascinating study of man’s quest for power and speed. The automobile has had both positive and negative effects on society and on the environment.
Early automobiles ran on steam, electric power, or gasoline engines. Gasoline engines quickly became the most popular. Their advantages included the ability to go at high speeds and the fact that they did not have the odor or exhaust of the steam or electric power automobiles. Electric cars had disadvantages such as a limited range and a need to recharge the battery.
One of the most important events in the evolution of the automobile was the development of the assembly line for making them. This process was pioneered in the United States by Ransom Eli Olds at his 1904 Oldsmobile plant.
The development of automobiles has been shaped by government regulation, technological breakthroughs, and economic and social changes. During the 1920s, the automobile was a major force behind a revolution in the American economy and culture that moved Americans away from dependence on imported goods to a more consumer-oriented lifestyle. It also was a key force in developing many ancillary industries, including steel and oil. Today, the automobile is still the dominant mode of personal transportation. However, it is increasingly being challenged by environmental and energy problems of a scale never before seen and by the development of alternative forms of transportation such as buses, trains, trams, and subways. Also, it is becoming clear that a sustainable supply of petroleum may be approaching its limits. The role of the automobile in the future will need to be carefully reconsidered.