An automobile, also called a motorcar or car, is a self-propelled passenger vehicle that is usually four-wheeled and powered by an internal combustion engine using a volatile fuel. It is one of the most universal of modern technologies and a major industry worldwide. Modern cars are complex technical systems with thousands of subsystems that have evolved from breakthroughs in engineering and technology as well as from new materials such as electronic computers and high-strength plastics and alloys of steel and nonferrous metals. They are used for transporting passengers and cargo.
The automobile is a key to contemporary life because it is used for so many tasks that make modern work and social interaction possible. It allows people to commute to and from work or school without having to worry about public transportation schedules or coordinating rides through friends. It also lets people go shopping, visit friends or family members, or take a vacation. In addition, people can carry goods and supplies in a cargo truck or trailer attached to their car.
Invented and perfected in Germany and France in the late 1800s by such men as Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, and Nicolaus Otto, the automobile first achieved dominance on the streets of Europe and the United States with the introduction of the gas-powered internal combustion engine in the 1910s. By the 1920s, automobile production in America was so prolific that Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler had emerged as the three largest producers.
The United States has a much larger land area and a more evenly distributed income than Europe, which enabled Americans to have great demand for automobiles. In addition, American manufacturers introduced assembly line innovations such as Henry Ford’s Model T, which allowed automobiles to be produced at a lower cost, making them affordable to middle-class consumers.
After the Depression, the automobile rapidly became indispensable to everyday American life. The ability to move quickly and easily between city centers and rural areas enlarged Americans’ options for housing, recreation, and employment. It also served to reinforce a long-standing predilection in the United States toward freedom of movement and action, as well as to make the individual home a dominant center of living space.
As the automobile became more widely used, people also began to use it to escape from urban living in search of a more natural lifestyle. This movement accelerated in the 1950s and 1960s, as suburban communities of houses surrounded by green lawns developed across the country.
With the advent of the 1970s, concern about the environmental and safety effects of the automobile grew. This led to the development of highway laws, seatbelts, air pollution control devices, and other safety features. The oil shortage of the late 1980s and early 1990s caused gasoline prices to rise, further diminishing American consumers’ affection for their automobiles. As the automobile age drew to a close, however, new forces were beginning to shape an America that was moving into a new Age of Electronics.