Automobiles are motor vehicles designed to transport people. The word comes from the Greek “auto” (self) and Latin “mobilis” (moving). They usually have four wheels, seat one to eight passengers and use an engine to make them move. Automobiles are used for both passenger and cargo transportation.
The modern automobile has revolutionized transportation and society in general. It has become the dominant mode of personal transportation worldwide. It is a symbol of the twentieth century, and it seems impossible for most people to imagine a life without it.
Karl Benz, an engineer in Germany, invented the first automobile around 1885. Other inventors and engineers developed their own designs. Then a businessman and engineer named Henry Ford came along. He developed a way to make cars using assembly lines. This allowed his company to produce them at lower cost. This made them affordable for middle class families.
At the turn of the 20th century, the United States dominated the automobile industry. The nation’s vast land area provided a great market for automotive transportation. Cheap raw materials and a chronic shortage of skilled labor encouraged manufacturing mechanization. In addition, free trade agreements eliminated tariff barriers and lowered production costs. The automobile facilitated the development of an entire new economy in the United States.
Dozens of spin-off industries flourished. Businesses that produced tires, rubber, and gasoline sprang up to meet the demand for automobiles. Industries to produce oil, automobile parts, and highway construction also sprang up. Workers in these businesses found jobs and a chance to increase their standard of living.
The automobile fueled a social revolution in America. Previously, most people moved around on foot or by train or bus. Now, they could travel to work or school, visit friends, and shop in town. People began to take vacations to far-away places. Families spent more time together as they no longer had to rely on friends or relatives for rides.
Men and women alike enjoyed driving automobiles. Women gained independence, as they no longer had to depend on their husbands or fathers for a ride. Two women, Nell Richardson and Alice Burke, even made a trip across the country in an automobile to advocate for women’s rights. They decorated their car with banners saying “votes for women.”
In the early 20th century, the automobile changed society and culture. Automobiles brought urban amenities to rural areas, including schools and medical care. They opened up the countryside to recreational and business opportunities. They reconnected rural and urban dwellers, and they enabled dating couples to enjoy some privacy on their drives. However, the automobile also caused traffic jams and a rise in air pollution, as well as road accidents and fatalities.
By the end of the century, automobiles were everywhere. The most popular model was the Ford Model T, which was a major step forward in industrial manufacturing, but it did not stop manufacturers from offering hundreds of different models. In the 1970s and 1980s, automobiles became fuel-efficient, safer, and less polluting. The era of the annually restyled road cruiser ended with the imposition of federal standards for safety and emissions; with escalating petroleum prices that led to energy crises; with consumer concerns about fuel efficiency, noise and vibration; and with government regulations governing licensing, safety and traffic laws.