The automobile is one of the most important inventions of the 20th Century. It has enabled people to work, play, live, and commute in ways that were never before possible. It has brought people together and opened new horizons of freedom, wealth, and knowledge. However, automobiles can also pose safety and health risks and create environmental problems. The automobile has become a symbol of our times, and we have to decide how much control we are willing to give up over the automobile’s impact on our lives.
Modern automobiles are complex systems that operate on an enormous variety of road conditions and traffic patterns. Many of the vehicle’s specialized systems can be compared to the human body’s systems: the circulatory system, for example, provides coolant and lubricating fluid; the engine, or heart, powers the automobile by burning fuel; the wheels and axles provide stability on the road; the steering and brakes are controlled by the vehicle’s chassis; and the passenger compartment offers comfort and protection from the elements.
Thousands of individual parts make up the modern automobile, and its design is a balance of competing factors. For example, an automobile designed for off-road use needs durable, simple systems that can withstand severe overloads and extreme operating conditions. On the other hand, a car designed for highway travel must have a wide range of passenger comfort options and optimized high-speed handling and stability.
Automobiles have impacted every aspect of society. They have transformed cities by requiring large-scale urban planning and reshaping street patterns, prompted dramatic changes in personal and public transportation systems, and spawned new industries that manufacture tires, brakes, engines, and other automotive components. In addition, automobiles have helped revolutionize industrial production by making it possible to mass-produce vehicles at a price affordable to most middle-class families.
The first automobiles were essentially horse-drawn carriages with engines attached. By the late 1800s, Karl Benz had developed a four-stroke internal combustion engine that powered his Benz Patent-Motorwagen. By 1920, the gasoline-powered automobile had supplanted most of the world’s other forms of transportation. In America, the Ford Motor Company pioneered the use of assembly lines and other manufacturing methods to reduce the cost of producing the Model T to the point where it could compete with other cars in the marketplace. It is estimated that more than 60 million Americans own an automobile. The majority of these are passenger cars, which serve a diverse array of purposes that include providing family transportation and enabling parents to transport children to school and sporting events. The automobile is also used for work, such as delivering mail and packages, and to haul equipment. In addition, the automobile has made it possible to commute to work in a timely fashion and to visit friends and relatives in distant locations. In today’s fast-paced world, the convenience of owning a car has become almost indispensable to most people.