An automobile (or car) is a wheeled motor vehicle designed for transporting people and luggage on land. Automobiles are powered by an internal combustion engine fueled by gasoline or other petroleum-based fuels. They may also be driven by an electric motor. Some hybrid cars have both an internal combustion and an electric motor. Whether or not a person owns one, the automobile has become a key tool for moving modern society forward.
The development of the automobile is a story of industrialization, of economic and social change, and of technological innovation. With a population now traveling some three trillion kilometers (five trillion miles) each year, the automobile has become a central component of world transportation systems. Moreover, the automobile has transformed many cities into sprawling metropolises, and has influenced the growth of many rural areas.
No invention has had more influence on everyday American life in the twentieth century than the automobile. The first practical automotive technology emerged in Europe during the late 1800s, but it took American carmaker Henry Ford to bring its advantages to the masses. By applying innovative mass-production techniques to his Model T runabout, Ford reduced its price to a level that was affordable to middle-class Americans. This opened the door to automobile ownership in America and around the world.
After World War I, American automobile manufacturers dominated the industry. Their huge production capacity made them a crucial source of war materiel, and their profits were greatly increased by the massive demand for consumer goods after the war. In the 1920s, the automobile became a centerpiece of a new consumer-oriented society, and it was the most valuable product in the United States economy.
By the 1960s, however, engineers began to focus more on the aesthetics of automobile design than on functionality or economics. As a result, many American-made cars of this period were built to please the eye but not to run efficiently or safely. In addition, the higher unit profits that Detroit earned on gas-guzzling “road cruisers” came at the social cost of air pollution and a drain on dwindling world oil supplies.
Today, the automobile is an indispensable tool in daily living, but there are costs involved. It is expensive to learn to drive, and purchasing a vehicle is out of the range of many families. Maintaining a vehicle is costly, too. And of course, there are the environmental costs: automobiles cause enormous pollution, require a tremendous amount of energy to manufacture, and need to be disposed of at the end of their useful lives. All of these issues make owning a car a very personal decision.