How Automobiles Transform Lives
The automobile (also known as a car or motorcar) is one of the most common and most universal of modern technologies. In the United States alone, cars carry more than three trillion kilometers (about five trillion miles) per year on the nation’s streets and highways. Almost everyone owns a car, and automobiles have transformed the lives of the people who use them.
The scientific and technical building blocks of the automobile began to take shape in the late 1600s, when Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens invented a type of internal combustion engine sparked by gunpowder. By the end of the 19th century, engineers had developed a “horseless carriage” that ran on steam, electric power, or gasoline. Ultimately, the gasoline-powered automobile won out, largely because it offered the greatest combination of speed, range, and convenience.
In the early 20th century, industrial manufacturing methods introduced by U.S. automaker Henry Ford dramatically reduced the cost of automobiles. This allowed most middle-class families to afford a vehicle and, in so doing, greatly expanded the potential radius of individual lifestyles. Urban dwellers could go on vacation to pristine countryside, suburbanites discovered a new freedom in shopping at local malls, and teens experienced their first taste of independence with driving freedom. Unfortunately, the automobile also brought with it a host of problems such as traffic jams, pollution, and fatal accidents.
Automobile design and engineering has been driven by the desire to meet consumers’ needs. For example, automobiles intended for off-road use require rugged systems with high resistance to overloads and extreme operating conditions. In contrast, vehicles intended for high-speed travel need passenger comfort options and optimized high-speed handling and stability. Research and development engineers also have worked to reduce the cost of automobile production.
Since the 1920s nearly all automobiles have been mass-produced to meet consumer demand, and marketing plans have influenced the design of many automobile features. Alfred P. Sloan established the model of different makes produced by a single firm, which allowed buyers to “move up” as their fortunes improved; for example, Chevrolet shared components with Pontiac and Oldsmobile.
In addition to influencing the design of individual cars, large-scale automobile production has led to major innovations in the manufacture of components such as tires, wheels, and brakes. Moreover, the automobile has helped to create many spin-off industries such as vulcanized rubber, steel production, and road construction. However, in recent decades the rapid growth of car ownership has led to a proliferation of automobile-related hazards and environmental impacts. As a result, there have been calls for stricter safety and emissions regulations. In the future, experts believe that alternative fuels and more efficient designs will become increasingly important to reducing the environmental impact of the automobile. These changes will likely also affect how and where the automobile is used in society. For example, electric cars may soon replace traditional gasoline-powered cars in the urban centers of developing countries. In the long run, this will help to reduce pollution and congestion on busy roads and highways.