Automobiles, also called cars or motorcars, are four-wheeled vehicles designed primarily for passenger transportation and usually propelled by internal-combustion engines running on volatile fuel. Their design consists of complex technical systems employing thousands of subsystems with specific design functions. Their development has been influenced by breakthroughs in science and technology.
The automobile revolutionized American life and culture in many ways. It ended rural isolation, brought urban amenities such as schools and medical care into countryside America, and freed homemakers from the narrow confines of the household. Its technological advancements gave rise to the modern city and its suburbs. It also changed the architecture of residential housing and altered the conception of urban neighborhoods and industry. Its economic influence reaches beyond the nation, with foreign companies now producing more of the world’s vehicles than domestic manufacturers.
While history credits Karl Benz as the inventor of the automobile, Henry Ford’s invention of mass production made the car affordable to middle class Americans. His factory at Highland Park, Michigan, was the first to apply industrial methods of assembly line production. The Model T runabout sold for $575 in 1912, less than the average annual wage at that time.
Automobile manufacturers have developed a number of sophisticated technologies that greatly increase performance and convenience. These include self-starters, closed all-steel bodies, hydraulic brakes and syncromesh transmissions. But, in general, automotive product and manufacturing technology is now reaching a point of saturation. In the early years of this century, engineering was often sacrificed to the questionable aesthetics of nonfunctional styling and higher unit profits on gas-guzzling “road cruisers” at the social cost of increased air pollution and a drain on dwindling oil reserves.