An automobile is a wheeled motor vehicle that carries its own engine. It has a body built primarily for transporting passengers and may have a chassis with four or more wheels. Automobiles are powered by gasoline or diesel fuel. Usually the engine is water-cooled, and its power is transmitted to the front or rear wheels or all of them. The engine is usually in the middle of the vehicle; however, there are examples where it is mounted behind the front wheels, which allows for better weight distribution and fuel efficiency. Most automobiles are designed to run primarily on roads, and they typically have seating for one to six people.
The technical building blocks of the modern automobile date back several hundred years. The earliest cars were driven by steam engines, which could reach high speeds but had a short range and were often difficult to start. Electric power cars were more successful, but they had a much lower speed limit and required frequent stops to recharge. Gasoline-powered vehicles eventually won out, and the first modern cars appeared in the late 1800s.
The automobile was a major force for change in twentieth century America, and it became the backbone of a new consumer goods-oriented society. It was the largest customer of the petroleum industry and of many ancillary industrial products, including steel. In 1982 it provided one out of every six jobs in the United States. It also sparked a revolution in automotive manufacturing by helping to introduce the modern assembly line.
In the early 1920s, Henry Ford pioneered mass production techniques at his Highland Park, Michigan plant, and his Model T was the most popular car of its day. By the end of World War II, it had sold more than 15 million units and had helped to make car ownership a practical reality for most American families.
Automobiles gave people more personal freedom and access to jobs and services. Industries and new jobs developed to produce parts and fuel, such as petroleum and gasoline, rubber and then plastics. Services like gas stations and convenience stores sprang up.
While the automobile brought many social and economic benefits, it also introduced problems and risks. In cities, traffic jams and congestion increased, as did traffic accidents and deaths. Drivers were required to obtain licenses and to comply with state laws. Families on road trips found a portable place to relax together and to bond as they drove.
Today, automobiles are a symbol of wealth and status. Ownership is nearly universal, and most Americans are “auto-dependent.” While the automobile has made progress in promoting changes for industry and technology, it is no longer acting as a progressive force for change. It now faces competition from newer forces, such as electronic media and the laser. The Automobile Age is melding into the Age of Electronics.