Automobiles are wheeled vehicles that are built primarily to transport people. Most automobiles use a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine to run the wheels. The word “automobile” is derived from the Latin term for horseless carriage. Modern automobiles have a wide variety of safety, comfort and entertainment features. These technologies evolved from innovations such as electronic computers, high-strength plastics and new alloys of steel and nonferrous metals. They also developed from changes in design and manufacturing strategies, which were driven by environmental, economic and social pressures. The automobile revolutionized transportation and brought new industries and jobs to the United States. It helped people to escape urban isolation and visit the countryside. It stimulated participation in outdoor recreation and led to the development of roadside services such as gas stations, hotels and restaurants.
The automobile is a complex technical system, consisting of many subsystems that are designed to work together. Each of these has specific functions. The main components include the engine, transmission, and drive systems, which convert the mechanical energy of the engine into a form that is useful for transporting the vehicle. Other essential parts are the steering, suspension and brakes, which provide control of the automobile when it is on the road.
The building blocks of the modern automobile date back hundreds of years. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot made the first steam-powered road vehicle in 1769, and Francois Isaac de Rivaz designed and constructed a prototype for an internal combustion powered car in 1808. However, it was Karl Benz who, around 1885, patented a version of the Motorwagen that would become a practical and marketable automobile for daily use.
Benz’s Motorwagen was the first automobile to incorporate a number of important design innovations, including an accelerator for speed regulation, a battery ignition system and a four-stroke engine that used liquid fuel. These improvements enabled the vehicle to reach higher speeds and remain stable at highway speeds. It had a limited range and was not as easy to start as a steam or electric car.
Although many inventors and engineers followed Benz with their own designs, it was Henry Ford who made the automobile accessible to the mass market. He created the first factory-based assembly line, enabling him to produce automobiles at much lower prices than his competitors could. His 1908 Model T was the first automobile that the average American could afford.
From the 1910s through the 1960s, the automobile revolutionized life in America in many ways. It allowed people to live farther away from their workplaces and to get around more easily when they did work, to visit places in the country that were not readily accessible by railroads or other forms of public transportation, and to spend time outside during the day without relying on bicycles or horses. It also led to the development of a large number of industry-related jobs, such as those at service stations, auto repair shops and oil refineries, as well as to the growth of new retail and leisure activities, such as recreation clubs and golf courses.