An automobile, or motor car, is a wheeled passenger vehicle that carries its own engine. Most definitions specify that it must be designed to run primarily on roads and that it should have seating for one to seven people. Approximately 1.4 billion automobiles are in operation worldwide, with more than three trillion miles (five trillion kilometres) driven on them each year.
Automobiles have become central to the American lifestyle, and they are a vital part of modern society. They are a symbol of both the promise and the pitfalls of our time. Whether used for work, pleasure, or both, they have revolutionized transportation and have changed the shape of the world in which we live.
In the late 1860s, Siegfried Marcus invented a two-stroke internal combustion engine powered by gasoline. It was the first practical gasoline-powered automobile. The following year Karl Benz improved the design by replacing the engine with a four-stroke, and he began to manufacture his Benz Patent-Motorwagen in 1886. Benz’s automobiles were expensive, but they soon became popular.
Henry Ford’s commitment to mass production and his use of the assembly line made the Model T affordable to middle-class Americans. He also shrewdly aligned his abstemious style with demand by making the standard car so stripped-down that it would sustain a thriving industry of third-party add-ons.
By the end of the twentieth century, a modern life was inconceivable without access to an automobile. Most families owned multiple cars, and the average U.S. family drove more than 3.2 trillion miles (4.8 trillion kilometres) each year. This incredible use of automobiles has created serious problems, including congestion on highways and city streets, air pollution from exhaust emissions, and traffic accidents. Nevertheless, it is clear that automobiles will continue to play an important role in the future.
There are many other ways to get around town or from one place to another, such as buses, trains, trams and subways. But for people who need to cover large distances or travel frequently, there is no substitute for an automobile. The automobile allows us to go where we want, when we want, and at a speed that we prefer. It also gives us the freedom to visit friends and relatives, explore new routes and take road trips with loved ones. We can even bring our pets along for the ride. With so much to offer, the automobile has become a major player in our lives and a cherished symbol of American freedom. The Automobile Age is fading, however, as new forces meld into a new era of electronics. It is no longer the dominant force that it once was in the shaping of the United States and the rest of the world.