Automobiles (also known as cars) are motor vehicles intended for passenger transportation on land. They are usually propelled by an internal combustion engine, powered most often by gasoline, a liquid petroleum product. Modern automobiles are complex technical systems with subsystems that have specific design functions and that interact to produce the vehicle’s overall performance. The design of an automobile is driven by its purpose and operating environment. For example, automobiles for off-road use need durable, simple systems with high resistance to severe overloads and extreme conditions. Those designed for high-speed road systems must have improved engine performance and optimized high-speed handling and stability.
The automobile is one of the most significant inventions in human history, bringing changes for industry and technology as well as for everyday life. It gave people more freedom and access to jobs, places to live, and services. It created new industries and jobs involving the manufacture of automobile parts, including petroleum and gasoline, rubber, and plastics. It also gave rise to new businesses like gas stations and convenience stores. It paved the way for more leisure activities and increased recreational travel. The automobile was an important contributor to the urbanization of America, causing more people to move to cities.
Despite the fact that the automobile was first perfected in Germany and France in the late 1800s, American manufacturers quickly came to dominate the industry, using innovation like mass production to drive down costs and increase sales. By the 1920s, Ford, GM and Chrysler were the “Big Three” automakers. In the postwar era, engineering in automobiles was subordinated to the questionable aesthetics of nonfunctional styling at the expense of economy and safety, while quality deteriorated. Concerns grew about the pollution caused by gasoline-burning cars and the drain on dwindling world oil reserves. The era of the annually restyled road cruiser was finally ended by federal standards for automotive safety, air pollution and fuel efficiency; by rising energy prices; and by the penetration of the U.S. and world markets first by the German Volkswagen “Bug” and then by Japanese fuel-efficient, functionally designed, well-built small cars.
Today, there are more than 73 million automobiles on the roads worldwide, with the majority being passenger cars. They transport more people and goods than any other mode of transportation, and are responsible for about a quarter of the world’s energy consumption. They are also a significant cause of traffic congestion and air pollution, as well as accidents and injuries to passengers and pedestrians.
Among the most important advances in the history of the automobile has been the improvement in engine power, transmission and chassis. Other important improvements include the development of new materials and new techniques for production. For example, automobiles built with steel alloys that are stronger and lighter than those made of other metals can reduce weight while increasing strength, making them more fuel efficient and safer to drive. A recent development is the use of hydrogen as a fuel for some cars. Hydrogen is considered to be an alternative fuel because it produces no carbon dioxide when burned.