Almost no invention in modern times has had as great an impact on the history, economy, and social life of so many people as the automobile. In the United States alone, a car or truck is in use by virtually every family. Whether traveling to work, running errands, or visiting friends and relatives, automobiles offer a degree of freedom that other means of transportation cannot match.
The modern automobile is a complex machine combining thousands of components arranged in several semi-independent systems. The engine, which is the heart of the automobile, generates power to turn the road wheels through a transmission system that is designed to respond to the conditions of the road surface. An analogous circulatory system provides cooling and lubrication. Other systems are required to provide electrical power, control the speed of the wheels and tires, and allow the driver to steer the car in response to road conditions.
There are other systems to ensure the safety of passengers and drivers, to reduce noise and pollution, and to control the flow of air over the vehicle. Research engineers and scientists are constantly working to improve the design of the automobile, its chassis, engine, fuel system, transmission system, braking and steering systems, and controls.
Most important, however, is the automobile’s ability to transport people and goods over long distances in comfort and convenience. To accomplish this task, the automobile must be designed and built in a way that will meet the specific requirements of each buyer. This is no easy feat. A number of factors must be taken into account, and compromises are often necessary. For example, a front-wheel drive car can be designed for improved handling and safety at the cost of better fuel efficiency, while a rear-wheel-drive car is best suited for high-speed driving.
The automobile is a highly individualized product, and the design must be flexible enough to accommodate a variety of user preferences and travel situations. For example, a passenger car will have a greater emphasis on seating capacity and legroom than a sports car, while an economy model is designed for good fuel economy and a minimum of costly equipment. To be successful, an automobile must be attractive to buyers and sell in large numbers, which will require a wide range of features and amenities at prices within the reach of most purchasers. A few of these systems, such as air conditioning and the electric windows, will have a significant influence on the appearance and value of the car. The rest will affect its function, allowing the automobile to compete in the world market against cars from other nations. With this background, we will examine the development of automobiles from their beginning as horseless carriages through the modern age of electronic mobility.