An automobile, or motorcar, is a four-wheeled vehicle designed to carry two or more passengers and a small amount of cargo. Its design is based on mechanical principles that depend to a large extent on the intended use. Automobiles that are to be driven on limited-access roads, for example, must have durable, simple systems with high resistance to severe overloads and extreme operating conditions. On the other hand, a sports car that is to be used for racing needs to have optimized high-speed handling and engine performance.
The automobile was a major force for change in American life during the first half of the twentieth century. It gave people the freedom to work and play individually rather than in groups, travel long distances, go shopping, visit friends, and take vacations. It also created jobs in the manufacture of vehicles, parts, and accessories, as well as in ancillary industries such as steel and petroleum. The automobile was also a big consumer of energy, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and reducing air quality.
Several inventors and engineers contributed to the development of automobiles. Karl Benz is generally credited with inventing the first modern automobile around 1885. Henry Ford, a businessman and engineer, came along after Benz. He invented the moving assembly line, which made automobiles much easier and less expensive to make. This revolutionized the industry, making cars available to people who previously could not afford them.
Since the 1920s, more and more Americans have acquired automobiles. They have become a way of life, not only for working people but also for families who live in the suburbs. Many people even own more than one vehicle. The car has become an important symbol of freedom and status, as well as a source of social problems such as traffic congestion and pollution. It has helped to spawn a number of industries that were unthinkable before the automobile, such as rubber and plastics. It also has been a major force behind the creation of better roads and other transportation infrastructure.
As the automobile becomes a more common part of American life, it is changing from being a progressive force for change to a more traditional one. Questions are being raised about its safety and fuel efficiency, as well as about the environmental impact of “gas guzzling” automobiles. In addition, questions are being asked about the draining of world oil supplies and the growing problem of global warming. The future of the automobile may lie in alternative forms of transport, such as rail- and water-based transit systems or even bicycles. Whether the automobile remains a potent force for change or fades into obsolescence, it is an indispensable element of everyday life. It will remain the dominant form of personal transportation for a long time to come.