The automobile (sometimes called a motorcar) is one of the most common and widely used of modern technologies. It is a self-propelled vehicle with four wheels powered by an internal combustion engine fueled most often by gasoline, a liquid petroleum product. More than 73 million cars were manufactured in the world in 2017. The automobile has greatly altered human life and made it possible to travel long distances for work, pleasure, and education with speed and comfort.
Scientists and engineers have continued to improve the design of cars over time. Today’s automobile is much safer, handles better, keeps occupants more secure, and is less polluting than its predecessors. New technologies have been integrated to make driving easier and more efficient, such as self-driving technology, advanced safety systems, and telematics. Some of these innovations have sped up the car’s performance and allowed it to do things that were previously impossible.
The scientific and technical building blocks for the automobile began to form in the late 1600s. Christiaan Huygens invented a type of internal combustion engine that was sparked by gunpowder. This early engine had only a limited power output and could only be operated intermittently.
Several inventors and industrialists developed prototype vehicles powered by steam, electricity, or gasoline toward the end of the nineteenth century. Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler, a German industrialist and engineer, improved on the designs of other inventors by combining a four-stroke engine with a bicycle-like frame to create a vehicle that could travel at reasonable speeds. Daimler’s 1901 Mercedes deserves special credit for being the first modern motorcar in all its essential features.
By 1920, the automobile had dominated the streets and highways of Europe and the United States. The industrialization of manufacturing by U.S. automobile maker Henry Ford revolutionized the industry by using assembly lines to turn out large numbers of cars at a lower cost, making them affordable for middle-class Americans. Automobiles are also the most commonly owned mode of transportation in the United States, and they allow people to live anywhere they choose, expanding their job possibilities and social circles.
Automobiles have also opened up the world to women. In 1916 two women, Nell Richardson and Alice Burke, drove their cars from coast to coast as part of a protest for equal voting rights. They decorated their cars with “votes for women” banners and spoke at rallies along the way.
As the twentieth century progressed, many Americans became auto-dependent and lived a lifestyle that would be unthinkable without an automobile. By the mid-1960s, however, engineering had become subordinated to questionable aesthetics and nonfunctional styling, while quality deteriorated, and fuel efficiency declined. Rising oil prices in the 1970s prompted a rethinking of automotive design and production, which led to a new generation of safer, more fuel-efficient cars. Today, American automakers produce more than a hundred different models of passenger cars. A vast variety of styles, from economy compacts to luxury sports sedans, are available.