Automobiles and Modern Life

Automobiles are four-wheeled passenger vehicles, generally propelled by internal combustion engines powered by volatile fuel. They are a complex technical system with several structural and mechanical subsystems, including the body, which contains the passenger compartment; chassis, or steel frame; the engine; transmission and steering; and electrical and other systems. Each subsystem has specific design functions and is dependent on other systems for its function. The modern automobile is a highly integrated system of sophisticated engineering and manufacturing technologies.

The automobile is an integral component of modern life, and its development has been a major factor in shaping our culture. It is used for commuting, recreational activities and the delivery of goods. It is also a major employer and economic force. Its development has led to the formation of a wide range of industries. The demand for vulcanized rubber skyrocketed; highway construction became one of the largest items of public works spending; and numerous service-related industries, such as gas stations and motels, grew up around it.

While a number of inventors experimented with automobiles during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, none commercialized them until Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz in Germany and Francis E. Stanley and Freelan O. Stanley in the United States. They adapted steam engine technology to produce vehicles that were capable of traveling at speeds up to 40 mph. They were not designed to carry cargo, but they were a step towards the eventual development of passenger cars.

In the 1920s, automobiles became a dominant form of transportation. As their popularity soared, they stimulated outdoor recreation and led to the growth of tourism-related industries. They enabled urban dwellers to rediscover pristine landscapes and rural residents to shop in cities. They brought improved medical care, schools and other services to remote areas. The automobile ended the isolation of many rural communities and made suburban living possible.

Despite the automobile’s immense social influence, it also had negative impacts. The high unit profits that Detroit manufacturers earned from churning out gas-guzzling road cruisers came at the expense of air pollution and dwindling world oil supplies. And the automotive industry was criticized for giving priority to nonfunctional styling rather than to safety and efficiency.

Today, automobiles are available in a huge variety of styles and sizes. They are a symbol of the freedom and potential for disaster that is modern life. It is difficult to imagine how we might live without this versatile means of transport. There are even special automobiles for particular purposes, such as emergency vehicles like fire engines, ambulances and patrol cars. There are also specialized automobiles for industrial uses, such as crane vehicles at construction sites and fork-lifts in warehouses. But the most common type is still the passenger car. It is estimated that there are about 1.4 billion passenger cars in use worldwide, with most of them in the United States where drivers cover three trillion miles (4.8 trillion kilometers) every year. This vast and growing market continues to drive the automobile industry.