The History of Automobiles

Automobiles are a major source of jobs and contribute to the economy in many ways. Millions of people work in factories producing automobiles or at gas stations, restaurants and motels that travelers stop at. Automobiles are complex machines with thousands of systems working together to make them safe, comfortable and economical. Some of these systems are used to power the wheels and turn the lights on, others control the acceleration, brakes and steering.

The earliest cars were powered by steam or electricity. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built a steam-powered automobile in 1769 and other manufacturers made these kinds of vehicles until the late 1800s. These cars were slow and heavy, and they had to be refueled every few miles (or kilometers). In 1886, Karl Benz developed a new kind of engine that made it possible to produce many more cars. This automobile was more reliable and easier to operate than earlier models.

As the middle class grew in size, more Americans could afford to own automobiles. The car opened up the country and brought leisure activities like recreation, travel and shopping to rural areas. New services like motels, roadside restaurants and service stations sprang up to support these new activities. New laws and government requirements were introduced to control traffic and safety. Highways and roads, one of the largest items of public works spending at its peak, were constructed to connect urban centers with rural communities. The automobile ended rural isolation and brought urban amenities to farm life, including schools and medical care.

During the first half of the 20th century, the world’s most popular vehicle became the gasoline-powered sedan. This was the car of choice among most families, and it became an icon for American economic and social power. But the cars that rolled off assembly lines were not always well designed or reliable. Engineering was subordinated to questionable aesthetics, and quality deteriorated until by the mid-1960s most American-made cars had twenty-four defects per unit.

Today, automobiles are a dominant form of transportation with an estimated 1.4 billion in operation worldwide. These vehicles help people get to their jobs, travel to school or visit friends and family. They are a big contributor to global air pollution and can be unsafe when driving in bad weather or on crowded roads. Millions of people die in automobile accidents each year. In addition, the use of automobiles is a significant cause of climate change and energy shortages. New technologies are being developed to improve fuel efficiency, reduce emissions and provide other benefits that will make the car safer for drivers and passengers. They will also have more passenger space and be able to drive on rough terrain, such as mountains and sandy beaches.