The automobile is one of the major inventions of modern times. Automobiles have shaped our economy, culture, and social structure. Modern life would be almost inconceivable without them. Millions of vehicles are on the roads at any given moment, driving over three trillion miles (five billion kilometres) per year.
Today, there are nearly 590 million passenger cars in use worldwide, and a good portion of them are in the United States. While many cars are specialized for specific uses, all have certain basic features in common.
There are hundreds of thousands of individual parts in a modern car, and they are organized into several semi-independent systems. The engine, for example, is a little like the human heart, with its own circulatory system to deliver coolant and lubricating oil, and to carry blood throughout the body. There are also circulatory systems to transport water, air, and fuel.
These systems work together to make the automobile run and to reduce noise, vibration, and pollution. They also enable the car to accelerate, brake, and turn.
In addition, the automobile must be flexible enough to function in various situations and for a variety of purposes. The arrangement, choice, and type of components depend on these factors. An ordinary sedan, for example, is designed to be comfortable on long trips, while a sports car must have enhanced steering and handling abilities. It requires a larger engine, more fuel, and sophisticated suspension systems.
The automobile has transformed our cities and countryside, reshaping the design of our towns and reorganizing the delivery of public services such as fire, police, and utilities. It has created new industries, including automotive manufacturing and the production of tires, glass, metals, and plastics. And the mass production techniques developed for the automobile have since become the foundation of manufacturing in nearly every industry.
During the last century, the automobile has been transformed from an invention of industrial age into the most popular form of personal transportation in the world. Today, most Americans cannot imagine living without a car. For millions, it is the primary means of family travel. For others, it serves as an extension of their homes and offices. For all, it provides a sense of freedom that could not be gained through the use of public transit or by walking.
Although the automobile has been around for centuries, it was perfected in Germany and France toward the end of the nineteenth century by such men as Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, and Nicolaus Otto. Initially, steam, electric, and gasoline-powered engines competed, with the gasoline internal combustion engine ultimately winning out. Since the early twentieth century, the auto industry has grown into the largest industrial concern in the world. The average American owns more than one car, and 85% of those cars are manufactured by the Big Five domestic automakers. While automobiles are a tremendous convenience, they can be dangerous, especially when driven recklessly or by untrained drivers. Automobile accidents are often catastrophic and even deadly.