Automobiles are four-wheel motor vehicles that carry people and luggage over a long distance at a moderate speed. They are powered by an internal combustion engine fueled most commonly by gasoline (petrol), a liquid petroleum product. The automobile, one of the most ubiquitous of modern technologies, has changed the lives of billions of people and profoundly influenced the world economy and society.
The origins of the automobile can be traced back to the late 17th century, when a Dutch scientist invented a type of internal-combustion engine sparked by gunpowder. But it was Karl Benz who designed the first practical car, built in 1885. In the years that followed, engineers and entrepreneurs tweaked his basic design to create a vehicle that was affordable for middle-class Americans.
In the United States, cheap raw materials and a tradition of industrial manufacturing encouraged companies to increase production. The American automobile industry became dominated by a few firms that employed a revolutionary method of production: the assembly line. By 1914, Henry Ford’s Model T runabout cost less than half the average annual wage in the United States. This reduced price made mass personal transportation a reality.
Automobiles spawned spin-off industries in the United States that made life in the modern urbanized and suburbanized United States possible. These included a wide range of ancillary businesses. For example, the demand for vulcanized rubber increased dramatically, as did the need for road construction. The automotive industry also helped produce war materiel for both the first and second world wars, as well as other essential goods, such as clothing, food, and medical supplies.
It is possible that no invention affected American everyday life more than the automobile. The automobile enabled the vast majority of Americans to live a much more convenient, comfortable, and productive life than was previously possible. Having a car frees people from the constraints of public transportation schedules and gives them more time to spend on family and other interests.
Although the modern automobile may seem like an inevitable invention, there are some concerns about its effects on our environment and our health. Some critics claim that cars cause pollution and other health hazards. They also argue that the money the automobile industry makes by selling gas-guzzling “road cruisers” comes at a high social cost in terms of air quality and dwindling oil reserves. However, many individuals still believe that automobiles are the best means of transporting themselves and their possessions over long distances. They are also convenient to use and easy to operate. As such, they remain the most important mode of transportation in most areas of the world.