Automobiles are one of the most important and ubiquitous of modern technologies. Also known as motorcars or automobiles, they are four-wheeled vehicles designed for passenger transportation with a self-propelled engine powered most often by gasoline (liquid petroleum gas). The term is distinguished from a truck, which is primarily used to transport cargo and is constructed with heavier parts and larger capacities, and a bus, which is a large public conveyance that usually carries passengers in addition to a limited amount of cargo.
The invention of the automobile brought fundamental changes to American everyday life in the early 20th century. As cars became more affordable, middle-class families began to own them. The automobile allowed cities dwellers to rediscover pristine natural landscapes, while rural residents could shop in urban centers. Teenagers gained independence with driving freedom, and dating couples found a portable place to be alone together.
Although the automobile was developed in Germany and France in the late 1800s, Americans quickly came to dominate automotive manufacturing by the 1920s. Henry Ford introduced mass-production techniques that revolutionized industrial production, and auto companies like Ford, GM, and Chrysler emerged as the “Big Three.”
After World War II automobile sales and production peaked. However, postwar problems arose regarding the nonfunctional styling of American made cars, safety issues with new models, and economic aspects relating to a new breed of gas-guzzling engines. In addition, questions surfaced about the environmental impact of automobiles.
In recent decades, technological advances in automobiles have helped make them safer and more fuel efficient. The industry has expanded to include an enormous array of products, from basic components and accessories such as rims and tires, to complex systems such as navigational aids and vehicle control computers. New designs have also addressed the needs of different markets and customers, such as environmentally friendly electric or hybrid cars. Today, there are more than 1.4 billion cars in use, and most of these are automobiles that have been produced since the first Model T appeared in 1908. These cars travel more than 3 trillion miles each year, making them the primary mode of transportation for most people on the planet. Automobiles play an important role in the economy by supporting a wide range of jobs in all 50 states, from cutting-edge assembly plants to major logistics and transportation infrastructure that exports completed products to points around the globe. As the United States continues to evolve into a global economy, it will depend on a strong automotive sector for continued growth and prosperity.