The Automobile – The Promise and the Pitfalls


The automobile is the one of modern technology’s most universally used devices. It’s a four-wheeled passenger vehicle driven by an internal combustion engine using a volatile fuel such as gasoline. The car is also a symbol of both the promise and the pitfalls of modern life.

The scientific and technical building blocks of the automobile date back hundreds of years. In the late 1600s Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens invented a type of internal combustion engine fueled by gunpowder, which he called a “horseless carriage.” The first modern motor car had a flat engine, similar to a bicycle, and was designed by German engineer Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz in 1896. It could travel at thirty-five miles per hour.

Until the invention of the automobile, most people lived close to where they were born and raised. Moving even a short distance meant hours of hard work for people who owned their own buggy. The automobile opened up many possibilities for where and how people lived, including the emergence of suburban areas. The ability to drive also meant that people could move more easily between cities and states for work and social opportunities, which further increased the options for how people arranged their lives.

In the United States, the vast geography and a lack of tariff barriers created great demand for automobile transportation. Manufacturers were able to produce cars more cheaply than in Europe. And with the advent of Henry Ford’s mass production techniques, it was easier for consumers to buy cars at affordable prices. The number of companies producing automobiles grew rapidly and by the 1920s the American industry was almost entirely dominated by three giants, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

After World War II, the automobile became more efficient, easier to operate and more comfortable. The development of plastics allowed for lighter and safer cars, while new alloys made it possible to build cars with smoother curves and better handling. Power steering, automatic transmission and air conditioning soon became standard features on most vehicles. And a growing population of middle-class families was willing to spend the money on luxuries like reclining seats and power windows that were once reserved for luxury limousines.

But the automobile also spawned new problems, such as exploding tires and engine fires. The high profit margins that Detroit enjoyed on its gas-guzzling road cruisers also came at a price, including deteriorating public health and environmental damage. And as the automobile became more central to everyday life, a new generation of consumers developed an addiction to driving, which led to a dramatic increase in traffic accidents and congestion. The modern automobile is a highly complex technical system that requires thousands of component parts to function properly. Its subsystems range from computerized electronic systems to advanced engine and chassis designs. Some of these innovations have been the result of new technologies, such as high-strength materials and the use of nonferrous metals; others have come from research in human factors and design theory.