Automobiles are vehicles that use an internal combustion engine to propel them. These four-wheeled vehicles are a symbol of both the promise and the pitfalls of modern technology. Automobiles enable people to travel over long distances quickly, but they also encourage the spread of low-density urban sprawl, which degrades landscapes and increases energy use. Nonetheless, automobiles are useful tools for enhancing the quality of life by allowing individuals to live and work in different places.
The automobile is an extremely complex technical system that consists of many subsystems with specific design functions. Thousands of individual parts make up the modern car. The chassis and body of the vehicle are analogous to the skeletal structure of the human body, supporting the systems that make the automobile run and providing safety and comfort for passengers. The engine, the heart of the automobile, consists of pistons, cylinders, and tubes to deliver fuel and lubricating oil. The engine is surrounded by a variety of systems that reduce noise, vibration, and pollution.
Some of these systems are designed to improve fuel efficiency by reducing the amount of air displaced by the movement of the pistons. Other systems are designed to enhance safety, such as the braking and steering systems. Environmental concerns have also led to the development of systems to control pollutants and reduce noise, such as catalytic converters.
Although the automobile was first developed several hundred years ago, it became a practical mode of transportation only after a series of technological advances made it possible. These advances include improvements in the internal combustion engine, electric motors, and battery power. The first production cars used gasoline as a fuel, which was much cheaper than other fuels and allowed the vehicles to travel at high speeds. Later, they were modified to use electricity, which reduced maintenance requirements but limited their range. By the late 1800s, inventors such as Christiaan Huygens, Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, and Emile Levassor had perfected the basic engine and body design for what would become known as the automobile.
By 1900, the American automobile industry was growing rapidly. It had a huge market to serve, and the country’s vast land area ensured that there would be an ample supply of raw materials and labor. This combination of factors created an unprecedented seller’s market for an expensive consumer goods item like the automobile. Consequently, Americans were able to produce cars with more advanced features than European manufacturers, such as the 1901 Mercedes-Benz and Ransom E. Olds’ 1901-1906 one-cylinder, three-horsepower tiller-steered and curved-dash model. The latter, however, offered the advantages of moderate price and low operating expenses, which made it America’s first mass-produced automotive triumph.