Automobiles and the New Economy


Automobiles are four-wheeled vehicles that have become the main means of personal transportation in the developed world. Their primary design function is to carry passengers, although they are often used to transport goods and materials. Modern automobiles are highly engineered and complex technical systems. Their subsystems are designed to perform specific functions and use advanced materials like high-strength plastics and new alloys of steel and nonferrous metals. These innovations have resulted in significant gains in fuel efficiency and safety. The automobile is also a major driver of industrialization, as it creates demand for many related products and services. In the United States it is the first largest industrial consumer of petroleum and one of the chief consumers of steel, with the production of cars creating a substantial number of jobs in its own right.

The scientific and technological building blocks of the automobile go back several hundred years. The late 1600s saw the invention of the gunpowder internal combustion engine by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, and the horseless carriage by engineers such as Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot of France. However, it was not until 1885 that Karl Benz, a German engineer, revolutionized the automobile by developing a car with a gasoline-powered engine. Prior to Benz, manufacturers had produced steam-powered cars that could go at low speeds but required constant attention because they had to be heated and the engines were prone to breakdowns. They had also been powered by batteries, which tended to be a nuisance because they were heavy, didn’t run at high speeds and required frequent recharging.

American businessman and engineer Henry Ford seized the advantage offered by Benz’s innovation with his introduction of the moving assembly line in 1913, which enabled a larger volume of automobiles to be produced at lower prices. Combined with a vast land mass, cheap raw materials and a population of relatively rich people, America quickly became a major producer of motor vehicles.

By the 1920s Americans owned more automobiles than anyone else in the world, and the country’s rapid transformation into a consumer goods-oriented society was largely driven by this industry. The automobile was also the backbone of a new economy that supported a host of ancillary industries, including oil and steel, and provided jobs for millions of people.

Benefits of Having a Car

The most obvious benefit is that you have the freedom to move around when you want to, and not have to depend on other people’s schedules or wait for a bus to come by. In addition, driving your own car gives you the flexibility to choose when to depart from your destination, what route you take and strategies to skirt traffic problems. Finally, shopping is a lot easier when you have your own vehicle, rather than having to wait for an Uber or struggle to carry all that stuff home on public transportation. Of course, all of these benefits come with a price. The environmental and health costs of the automobile are considerable.