Automobiles are motor vehicles that carry people and things, primarily for transportation over land. The branches of engineering that deal with the manufacture and technology of these vehicles are known as automobiles engineering. Today, automobiles are a major part of the world’s economy and society. They serve a variety of purposes in industry, agriculture, and personal life, from the delivery of goods to the provision of police, fire, ambulance, and utility services to such recreational uses as shopping, vacation travel, dining, and recreation.
Automobile technology has changed enormously in the twentieth century, from the earliest horse-drawn carriages that had engines installed to the complex systems that now comprise modern motor vehicles. During the early 1900s, Americans gained dominance of the automobile industry, developing mass production techniques that revolutionized manufacturing processes throughout American society. Automobiles became the backbone of a new consumer-goods-oriented economy and the main force driving changes in social and economic structures. They also helped to drive the development of a new energy source, petroleum, and consumed substantial amounts of ancillary industrial products such as steel, rubber, glass, and paint.
Despite their importance in the lives of many people, cars have disadvantages. The initial purchase price of a vehicle is expensive, and ownership comes with ongoing maintenance costs, insurance, fuel expenses, and repair bills. Additionally, cars are responsible for releasing harmful pollutants into the atmosphere and depleting dwindling world oil supplies. Despite these concerns, owning a car has many benefits for individuals and families, including the freedom to travel on their own schedule and avoid the expense and hassle of using public transportation.
The automobile’s basic systems consist of the engine, fuel system, transmission system, electrical system, cooling and lubrication system, and chassis. The chassis, which is analogous to the skeleton in a human body, provides support for these other components. It consists of wheels and tires, suspension system, braking system, and steering mechanism, as well as the body itself. The automobile is designed to provide comfort and safety for its passengers, as well as a means of transporting goods.
The era of the annually restyled road cruiser ended with the imposition of federal standards for automotive safety, pollution emissions, and energy consumption; with escalating gasoline prices and oil shocks in the 1970s; and with consumers’ shifting preference for small, economical cars from Japan. The automobile’s continuing role as a progressive force in American culture is now being challenged by forces such as the electronic media, the laser, and the computer. Nevertheless, for most Americans, the car is still an essential part of daily living. A resurgence of interest in bicycling and the increasing availability of low-cost alternative energy sources may eventually reduce automobile usage, but for now it remains central to the way we live. – The Reader’s Companion to American History, by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1991.