Automobiles – The Backbone of a Global Industry

Automobiles are powered by internal combustion engines, most often running on gasoline, a liquid product that is burned to create motion and generate heat. Known more commonly as cars, the automobile is one of the most universal modern technologies and the backbone of a global industry that has created millions of jobs and changed people’s lives. The automobile was originally perfected by European engineers in the late nineteenth century, including Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, and Nicolaus Otto. The first gas-powered vehicles were heavy and expensive, but they rapidly became the dominant mode of transportation for Americans.

By 1914, automakers had developed mass production techniques to keep costs down. Henry Ford pioneered this method by using assembly lines, in which workers remain at a single station to do a specific job as parts pass them on conveyors. His Model T cost less than $600, putting it within the range of middle-class families. By 1920, there were more than eight million registered cars in America.

The automobile revolutionized business, as it enabled companies to move goods to markets far more quickly than railroads could. It also stimulated new industries, such as vulcanized rubber, oil refining, and road construction. The industry grew so large that it accounted for a large percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product and became the principal purchaser of steel and other industrial products.

For the first time in history, most American families had access to a personal vehicle. People drove their cars to work, shopping centers, and entertainment events. The automobile encouraged family vacations and facilitated social activities that were previously impossible. The new freedom of movement allowed urban dwellers to rediscover pristine natural landscapes, and rural residents to shop in towns and cities. In addition, teenagers gained independence with the ability to drive, and couples began dating more frequently and more casually.

But the benefits were not without drawbacks. Car accidents and deaths soon became frequent, triggering demands for licensing and safety regulations at the state level. As the use of automobiles accelerated, air pollution increased, and energy consumption soared. In 1973, a shortage of oil from OPEC countries caused high prices at the gas pump and long lines for fuel. The automobile industry responded by developing more fuel-efficient engines and producing more models with smaller, compact bodies.

In the modern era, the automobile has continued to dominate life in the United States. It provides a huge segment of the economy and offers the conveniences of mobile communication and the ability to transport household appliances. It is a vital consumer good and provides many jobs in ancillary industries. At the same time, it has become a major source of pollution and a drain on dwindling world oil reserves. The automobile is the symbol of a modern, consumer-driven society. It is hard to imagine how society might function without it.