Automobiles are the lifeline of modern society. They carry people and goods, transporting more than three trillion miles (five trillion kilometres) every year. Without them, many luxuries of modern civilization would be unthinkable. Automobile engineering is the branch of technology that deals with the manufacture and design of automotive vehicles. It can also be called car manufacturing, auto production, or automobile industry. It is one of the largest industries in the world.
Automobile technology has been a powerful force for social and technological change. It has transformed our culture and altered our lifestyles. It has been responsible for the growth of cities and suburbs, and has created new jobs, industries, and services. The automobile has become the primary means of transportation for most families. It has radically reduced the amount of time people spend walking or riding in public transportation. It has given many people more freedom to choose where they live and work, and has made it possible to visit places that were previously inaccessible or impractical.
The history of the automobile is rich and complex. Its origin is disputed, but most scholars give Karl Benz credit for creating the first modern automobile in 1885 or 1886. His Benz Patent-Motorwagen had a four-stroke internal combustion engine. Several other inventors developed similar engines during the 1860s, but it was Benz’s that proved most successful and popular.
The earliest cars used steam, electric power, or gasoline as fuel. Steam cars could travel fast, but they had a limited range and were difficult to start. Electric cars had a 38 percent share of the United States automobile market in 1900, but they had limited range and recharging stations were inconvenient to locate. Gasoline-powered vehicles took a dominant share of the market by the 1920s.
During the first decades of the 20th century, as American society changed, more and more middle-class families were able to afford automobiles. This gave people the freedom to do more in their spare time, travel to remote locations, and escape urban life by visiting country areas. The automobile also influenced fashion, entertainment, and the way we shop.
Since the 1980s, a number of social and environmental problems have arisen that challenge the future of the automobile. These include air pollution, traffic congestion, and the use of dwindling oil resources. In addition, some engineers have been tempted by the financial rewards of nonfunctional styling and design features, while quality has declined. Nevertheless, the automobile has become the centerpiece of American society, and it is hard to imagine a time when we won’t be auto-dependent. But the age of the motor vehicle is slowly fading into the Age of Electronics. New forces-the digital media, the laser, and the computer-are charting our future.