Automobiles are vehicles that run primarily on roads and transport people rather than cargo. They have four or more wheels, are powered by an internal combustion engine, and are a major mode of transportation in many countries. The automobile has transformed human life in ways that few other inventions have, making modern-day living almost impossible without access to a car. It has affected urban design and government services such as police, fire, and ambulance services, and it has spawned new businesses such as gas stations and hotels. It also makes it possible to travel long distances in a relatively short time, and it has opened up new recreational activities like shopping, dining, and vacation trips.
Invented by Karl Benz around 1885, the first automobiles were mostly luxury models that were expensive and made by hand. By the early 1900s, however, Henry Ford had revolutionized the way cars are made. His use of the assembly line allowed him to turn out cars quickly and cheaply, and that meant that more people could afford them. This was the turning point of the automobile as it became a widely-used mode of transportation.
The American manufacturing tradition and the availability of inexpensive raw materials enabled the automobile industry to produce cars in greater quantities at lower prices than European manufacturers. This created a huge seller’s market, which guaranteed high sales over a large geographic area. The availability of cheap gasoline further encouraged the rapid spread of the automobile. By 1904, for example, a one-cylinder, three-horsepower, tiller-steered Oldsmobile that was essentially a motorized horse buggy cost only $650, putting it within the price range of middle-class Americans.
By the 1920s, the automobile had largely replaced horses as the main form of transportation in the United States and Europe. The development of fuel-efficient engines, sealed bodies, hydraulic brakes, and syncromesh transmissions enabled automobiles to become more efficient and safer. However, technological stagnation set in at about the same time as market saturation, and after a while, there was no longer much incentive for automakers to improve the cars they produced.
Today, most automobiles are powered by petroleum-based fossil fuels, which emit carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere when burned. This is a significant problem, but there are a number of things drivers can do to limit their emissions. They can drive less, use fuel-efficient engines, maintain their cars properly, and take advantage of new technologies that are being developed to reduce emissions, such as electric and hybrid cars. They can also encourage their friends and relatives to do the same. In the long run, these steps may help to keep global warming in check. Nevertheless, the automobile is still responsible for 27 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases, so there is a long road ahead for this technology.