Automobiles are vehicles that use a gasoline- or other fuel-powered engine to provide power to a set of four wheels, so they can travel over land. They are built mainly for transportation of passengers rather than cargo and are usually powered by an internal combustion engine, with some also using electricity to move their wheels. Some people use automobiles to commute to work and school, while others choose to take leisure trips in them. The word automobile comes from the French words for car and mobile (as in “moving”).
Many different definitions of what qualifies as an automobile have popped up over the years, but most agree that it’s a wheeled motor vehicle that is used for transportation. It must have a cabin for the driver and passenger, be constructed primarily to carry people, not cargo, and have a chassis that can respond to conditions on the road, including braking and handling. An automobile can reach places where buses and trains cannot, such as mountainous areas or deserts.
The automotive industry has transformed American society in many ways, and it’s hard to overstate how important this industry is to the economy. Today it’s one of the world’s largest industries, providing jobs to millions of people around the globe. It’s also been a driving force for the growth of oil and gas industries, as well as ancillary sectors such as steel and rubber.
While the technological building blocks for cars go back several hundred years, modern automobiles evolved in the late 1800s. Leonardo da Vinci had sketched designs for transport vehicles as early as the 15th century, but it was Henry Ford who turned them into practical automobiles that could be purchased by middle-class families. He innovated the assembly line, which enabled manufacturers to produce a lot of cars quickly and cheaply.
As the automobile spread across the United States, more and more families owned them. The industry boomed, and by the 1920s automobiles accounted for one-third of America’s consumer goods expenditures. By this point, the automobile had become the backbone of a new, consumer-goods-oriented economy and was the chief source of demand for petroleum, steel, and other industrial products.
The social effects of the automobile were equally dramatic. The automobile made it possible for urban dwellers to escape to the countryside, and rural inhabitants to shop in cities. Family vacations became commonplace, and young couples who had never before been able to afford to go on a date could now do so. Some women used their cars to advocate for women’s rights, decorating them with “votes for women” banners and giving speeches on the roadside.
The automobile has had some serious problems, too, including accidents and deaths on the road and air pollution caused by the exhaust. It can also damage buildings when it crashes or is driven too fast. But people can try to reduce the harm caused by automobiles by using them less and driving them more efficiently.