The automobile, also called a car or motor vehicle, is a wheeled passenger vehicle with seating for one to six people and a motor that propels it. It is usually powered by an internal-combustion engine using a volatile fuel such as gasoline. The modern automobile is a complex technical system employing thousands of subsystems with specific design functions. These subsystems are the result of a number of factors including new technological breakthroughs, safety and emission-control legislation and competition between automotive manufacturers around the world.
Automobiles have radically changed the way we live. They allow us to travel quickly and easily across a city or even a continent. They have allowed us to work and play farther away from home, and they have enabled families to live together in different places. They have created new industries, such as hotels and restaurants that cater to automobile passengers, and they have altered culture by encouraging leisure activities like shopping and watching movies in theaters.
People have a longstanding predilection for self-direction, and cars have given them a sense of freedom to move and to act that was not possible before cars became affordable and easy to operate. They have served as a major force in America’s development of suburban lifestyles, where people live in separate houses with green lawns around them. They have fueled America’s appetite for action and adventure, as well as its love of leisure activities such as sports and recreational games, shopping, entertainment and dining.
Until the early 1900s, only wealthy people could afford to own an automobile. Then, in the 1920s, businessman Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry by inventing the assembly line and making the Model T affordable to middle class families. It soon became the main form of transportation in the United States and many other countries. It spawned new industries, such as those that manufacture tires, glass and steel, and it influenced the country’s culture, creating leisure activities like hotels, restaurants and amusement parks that serve automobile passengers.
The technical building blocks of the automobile go back several hundred years. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot invented a steam-powered vehicle in 1769, and several manufacturers produced cars using steam power during the late 1800s. However, these vehicles were heavy and required water to be brought to a boil in order to start. Electric cars were lighter, but they had a limited range and had to be recharged often.
Gasoline-powered cars entered the market in the mid-1920s and dominated the American automobile market until the 1970s, when they were eclipsed by Japanese vehicles that were more fuel efficient and better designed. In the postwar era, engineers began to focus on styling rather than engineering, and quality deteriorated. By the 1960s, American-made cars were delivering to retail buyers with an average of twenty-four defects per unit, and Detroit’s profits were being made at the social cost of increased air pollution and a drain on dwindling world oil supplies.