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What Are Automobiles?


The automobile is one of the most universal of modern technologies, a four-wheeled motor vehicle primarily designed for passenger transportation. It is propelled by an internal combustion engine fueled most often by gasoline, and it can carry at least one driver and a small number of additional passengers or cargo. It may be equipped with a variety of air-conditioning and other comfort features. It is sometimes called a car or motorcar, although a vehicle that carries cargo rather than passengers is generally referred to as a truck, van, or bus.

Automobiles provide an important convenience for people who live or work in cities or other large areas that have little or no public transportation system, and they can also serve as a mode of recreation. However, they can pose serious environmental problems because they produce a lot of air pollution when driven on busy city streets and because they consume large quantities of fossil fuels. In many parts of the world, public transportation systems provide an alternative to automobiles that is safer and more environmentally friendly.

Invented in the late 1800s, the modern automobile is powered by an internal combustion engine with a volatile fuel, such as gasoline or diesel fuel. The engine is located in the middle of the vehicle and powers a pair of front wheels by turning a crankshaft driven by a belt, chain, or a flat-toothed pulley. Some early automobiles used steam or electric power. Steam engines could achieve high speeds but required regular maintenance, and battery-powered electric cars had a limited range.

In the 1920s, Henry Ford developed mass production techniques that dominated the automotive industry, and by 1930 the Big Three (Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler) had 80 percent of the market share. However, increased government safety and fuel-efficiency standards, as well as rising oil prices that prompted consumers to shift from gas-guzzling “road cruisers” to more economical, functionally designed vehicles, eventually diminished American production dominance and led to the growth of Japanese manufacturers.

An automobile can help us to stay in touch with family and friends who live far away, to travel for vacation or business, and to shop more conveniently and easily. Moreover, owning an automobile provides greater flexibility to choose when we depart, how to get where we want to go, and what strategies we use to avoid traffic congestion. It can also make it easier to participate in recreational activities, such as golfing or camping.

Automobiles are complex technical systems with a multitude of subsystems with specific design functions. To compete effectively in the marketplace, automakers must constantly improve their body, chassis, suspension, engine, driveline, and control systems. They must also devise new materials and new manufacturing methods to cut costs, reduce emissions, and increase fuel efficiency. During the postwar era, engineering was frequently subordinated to questionable aesthetics and nonfunctional styling, and quality deteriorated to the point that by the mid-1960s American-made automobiles were arriving at retail buyers with an average of twenty-four defects per unit.