The automobile is a four-wheeled vehicle designed primarily for passenger transportation and propelled by an internal-combustion engine using a volatile fuel. It is a complex technical system employing thousands of subsystems with specific design functions. The automobile is the culmination of breakthroughs in existing technology as well as the application of new technologies such as electronic computers, high-strength plastics, and specialized alloys of steel and nonferrous metals. Despite its many advantages, the automobile has also brought with it a host of social and environmental problems.
The invention of the automobile changed the economy by bringing new industries and jobs. Those industries needed to make the parts and fuel for cars and also services like gas stations and convenience stores. Automobiles also allowed people to travel for work or play. This meant that families could spend time together as they traveled to destinations and this created family traditions. Teenagers enjoyed their freedom of the road and this led to a change in dating patterns. Women gained a new sense of independence because they could drive and this lead to a push for women’s rights.
During the early 1900s it seemed impossible to imagine life without an automobile and America quickly became car-dependent. Henry Ford introduced mass production techniques that enabled him to lower the price of his Model T so that middle-class Americans could afford to buy one. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler soon dominated the auto industry.
After World War II the manufacturers focused on producing for the war effort and market saturation combined with technological stagnation slowed automobile development to a crawl. This opened the doors to foreign producers, especially Japan’s fuel-efficient, functionally designed and well-built small cars.
As the popularity of automobiles increased during the 1960s, public concern grew over their negative impact on the environment with pollution and the draining of world oil reserves. Laws and government regulations were enacted to deal with these issues. In addition, the growing numbers of older people who still owned automobiles and the increasing number of people who wanted to own one meant that manufacturers had to produce a greater variety of models to satisfy demand.
While the American automobile industry has never been as innovative as it once was, new forces are transforming the auto industry from an industrial giant into a global enterprise. Changing consumer demands are shifting the emphasis from the appearance and comfort of automobiles to safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness. These changes will likely affect the way we live in our future as the Age of Automobiles morphs into an era of electronic devices and new forms of transport.