Automobiles are the primary means of transport for most people in the world. They are a crucial part of the global economy, and enable people to work and live anywhere in the world. They also facilitate the flexible distribution of goods that make economies competitive. Automobiles provide mobility and freedom for their owners, but they also encourage sprawl (low-density urban development that degrades landscapes and produces traffic congestion), cause pollution and climate change, and require expensive infrastructure to maintain them.
The basic building blocks of the automobile began to emerge a few hundred years ago. Karl Benz invented a prototype of the modern automobile in 1885, followed by other inventors with their own designs. Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry in the United States by introducing the assembly line, which enabled mass production of automobiles and made them affordable for most people.
Thousands of individual parts make up the modern automobile. Like the human body, these components are arranged into semi-independent systems that perform related functions. The engine, for example, is the “heart” of the automobile. It uses gasoline, diesel fuel or kerosene to explode in the cylinders and turn the wheels. The wheels themselves connect to the suspension system, which enables the automobile to absorb shocks and variations in road surface conditions.
Steering systems provide the power to guide the automobile, and braking systems use friction to slow or stop it. The chassis and body, which is analogous to the skeletal structure of the human body, connect all of these systems. In addition, the wheels and suspension must be able to move the automobile’s weight and respond to driver input.
The occupants of the automobile depend on several systems for safety and comfort, such as air conditioning, heating, ventilation, and a padded dashboard. Manufacturers must balance the many factors in designing and constructing an automobile; they often compromise by choosing a design that satisfies most of the requirements.
Most automobiles are driven by engines that burn fossil fuels. The combustion process is usually controlled by a computer that monitors and regulates the engine’s operation. Various devices monitor and control the vehicle’s electrical system, which includes sensors that detect conditions such as low fuel or overheating.
The automobile has profoundly shaped the American experience. In the early 20th century, it opened new opportunities for work and leisure activities. It accelerated economic growth and expanded the geographic range of people who could afford cars. It helped to shape the nation’s regional identities, bringing suburban areas closer together and creating “red” and “blue” America. It also democratized travel by enabling people from rural areas to visit cities and from urban centers to reach remote natural spaces. The versatile Model T brought these travel opportunities to a broad range of Americans. The car has become one of the central icons of modern American life, and its spirit lives on in the F-series pickup trucks that ply the back roads of America’s heartland.