Few inventions have had as profound an impact on human life and society in the twentieth century as the automobile. Most people cannot imagine a time without them; they commute to work or school, go shopping and take family vacations in them. The automotive industry employs thousands of workers and is a major contributor to the economy of many nations. Almost every city and town in the world has a car-related business, such as an automobile dealership or repair shop.
The scientific and technical building blocks of the modern automobile date back several hundred years, but the earliest vehicles were primitive. A Dutchman named Christiaan Huygens invented a kind of internal combustion engine fueled by gunpowder in the late 1600s. By the end of the nineteenth century, the automobile had been perfected in Germany and France by engineers like Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz and Nicolaus Otto. However, they had to contend with a limited range and the need for lengthy recharging periods.
In the United States, entrepreneur Henry Ford revolutionized automobile manufacturing by using assembly lines to speed up production and lower the price of his Model T until it was affordable for middle class families. These new methods also allowed car manufacturers to introduce a wide variety of models and increase sales. By 1920, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler had dominated the global market.
Modern cars have become extremely complex, containing thousands of individual parts arranged into semi-independent systems. For example, just as the human body has a circulatory system for coolant and lubricating oil, the engine of a car has an analogous system. This system includes a pump that pumps coolant and lubricant to the engine, cylinders that hold the fuel and an intake and exhaust system. Each of these systems must operate properly to make a car run and reduce wear, noise and pollution.
Automobiles have become so integral to our lifestyle that we have largely accepted their drawbacks. They produce high levels of air pollution and are a drain on the world’s dwindling oil supplies. In addition, a driver must be prepared to deal with the risk of accidents and the inconvenience of traffic congestion.
In spite of these drawbacks, it is estimated that more than 73 million automobiles are in operation worldwide. As the demand for vehicles continues to grow, researchers are working to develop cleaner, safer and more fuel-efficient engines, as well as advanced safety systems such as blind spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control. These new technologies may help to limit the environmental damage caused by the exploding number of automobiles on our roads today.