The Automobile

The Automobile has been a key force in shaping twentieth century life. It has enabled individuals to live farther from work and thus has influenced urban planning and city design, sparked the creation of highways and freeways (see Transportation), and spawned ancillary industries such as gas stations, garages and insurance underwriters. It is estimated that people worldwide travel more than three trillion miles (almost five trillion kilometers) a year in automobiles. With more than one-quarter of these vehicles in the United States, this is a significant share of world travel.

The word “automobile” comes from the French words for “self-carrying,” referring to the fact that these vehicles were propelled by the push of a person rather than by another machine. The first automobiles were often little more than horseless carriages that used a volatile fuel to provide motive power, and they were expensive and unreliable.

By the late nineteenth century, however, new technical developments had lowered costs and improved performance. For example, the internal combustion engine, patented by Nikolaus Otto, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, provided the means to make motor vehicles more powerful, lighter, smaller, quieter, safer, more comfortable and affordable.

American automotive innovator Henry Ford revolutionized the industry with modern mass production techniques, where workers perform a single task and car parts pass along a conveyer belt, speeding up production. He reduced the price of his Model T runabout to a point where it became affordable for many middle-class families. Other manufacturers quickly adopted these methods, and by the 1920s automobile production was dominated by large companies such as Ford, GM and Chrysler.

The advent of World War II slowed automaker growth as they concentrated on producing military vehicles, but after the war sales boomed once again. Consumers demanded more functional styling, safety features and economical cars, and many turned to foreign automakers such as Germany’s Mercedes-Benz and Japan’s Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Mazda.

Today’s automobiles are complex technical systems that incorporate thousands of individual component parts. They are powered by engines that burn a volatile fuel such as gasoline or diesel fuel and rely on sophisticated electronics to control and coordinate the engine, transmission, drivetrain, steering, brakes, suspension and other systems. They are designed to be safe, comfortable and dependable, but they must also meet stringent government safety and environmental standards.

People rely on their automobiles for everyday tasks such as traveling to work and school, running errands, visiting friends and family members, going shopping and traveling. Without a reliable vehicle, they would be dependent on public transportation or having to adjust their schedules to those of other people. In addition, owning a car provides a sense of independence and self-reliance that is not available with other forms of transport. Being able to take yourself wherever you want to go in a short amount of time allows you to spend more time doing things you enjoy.

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