Throughout history, automobiles have symbolized both the promise and the pitfalls of modern life. In the past, the car was a symbol of social mobility, enabling people to travel farther and more easily than before. Today, however, many people have chosen to stop owning cars and instead use public transit if available, ride sharing services or simply walk or bike. But the fact remains that more than three trillion miles are traveled by cars each year, and these vehicles provide the world with a safe, affordable means of transportation.
In the late 1800s, inventors like Karl Benz and Henry Ford revolutionized the industry. They developed manufacturing techniques that allowed the production of multiple vehicles at the same time. This new method of mass production made automobiles more affordable to middle-class families, who were previously unable to afford them. The advent of the automobile had a major effect on American society, giving people more freedom and changing how they spent their leisure time. The automobile provided access to jobs and places to live, and it also contributed to the development of new industries and services that were not available before. It gave rise to new leisure activities such as amusement parks and other recreation, hotels, restaurants, and fast food chains. The automobile also caused harm to the environment, with exhaust from gas-burning vehicles contributing to air pollution and draining dwindling world oil supplies.
The automobile was one of the most significant inventions in human history, but it was also a source of much controversy and debate. In the postwar era, engineering was subordinated to the questionable aesthetics of nonfunctional styling at the expense of safety and economy, and quality declined. The higher unit profits that Detroit earned on its gas-guzzling road cruisers came at the cost of increased air pollution and a drain on the world’s diminishing oil reserves.
As a result of these issues, automobile manufacturers began to shift their focus toward developing alternative fuels and green technologies. Some companies even began to experiment with autonomous driving. Today, most cars are powered by internal combustion engines, but the industry is rapidly shifting away from traditional gasoline vehicles to hybrids and electrical cars.
The word “automobile” comes from the French auto, meaning self, and mobile, referring to its capability of being moved. Automobiles are the most complex of modern machines, with thousands of different component parts. They include a variety of technical systems with specific design functions, such as electronic computers and high-strength plastics, along with alloys of ferrous and nonferrous metals. Most of these components are manufactured with the help of automated systems.