The automobile symbolizes both the promise and the pitfalls of the modern world. It is the ultimate symbol of personal freedom and mobility, but it also reflects our propensity for excess and the desire to live without any higher guiding principles.
In the late 1800s, several inventors developed a vehicle that ran on an internal combustion engine fueled by gasoline. One of the first was Siegfried Marcus, a German working in Vienna. He built a crude two-stroke car with no seats, steering or brakes that he tested in 1870. The following year he invented an improved engine that ran on four strokes instead of two. The improved design allowed the car to run longer on a single tank of gas, and it had much better acceleration. Carl Benz later improved upon his earlier invention, and by the end of the century it had become clear that cars would be a major force in modern life.
Once the automobile became affordable to the middle class, it was used in large numbers and altered American society. In the early twentieth century, it was a primary tool in the creation of an entirely new economy, the backbone of which was consumer goods-oriented. It also created many jobs in the automotive industry and drove the development of ancillary industries, such as steel and petroleum. Moreover, it enabled more people to work in the city and live in the country.
American industrialist Henry Ford was the key figure in making the automobile affordable to the masses. He introduced manufacturing methods that allowed him to make cars at a fraction of their European competitors’ prices. For example, he was the first to employ assembly lines to speed up production and reduce the cost of the Model T runabout, which sold for about $575 in 1912, well below the average annual wage of the time.
As the automobile became a major part of daily life, families often moved away from cities and settled in suburban areas where they could afford to have a home surrounded by grass lawns, trees, and quiet streets. As a result, people had more time for leisure activities such as shopping and visiting friends and family.
The most significant disadvantage of the automobile is that it burns fossil fuels, and thus releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, transportation accounts for 27 percent of greenhouse emissions. It is important to purchase a fuel-efficient vehicle and maintain it regularly to limit greenhouse emissions. It is also a good idea to ride a bike or walk, whenever possible, to help protect the environment and reduce your energy consumption. In addition, having a car requires you to pay for insurance and maintain it at regular intervals. Owning a car can be expensive, but the long-term benefits of having one far outweigh the associated costs.