The automobile is a complex system of thousands of components, each working in tandem with another to provide the mobility and flexibility of use demanded by an enormous variety of lifestyles and industries. The vehicle is perhaps the most important industrial invention of the twentieth century, and its influence on society and the environment is undeniable.
Automobiles are the most popular means of transportation worldwide, and are essential to the economic health of a large number of countries. In the United States, for example, they have spawned a national highway network, spurred suburban sprawl, and opened new possibilities of travel to many American families.
They have also brought about a plethora of environmental problems, including air pollution, traffic jams, road rage, and an unsustainable global carbon footprint. Some of these problems are rooted in the way automobiles have been developed and used, while others are caused by human behavior or the design of roads.
The First Cars
In the early 1800s a German inventor named Karl Benz developed what is considered to be the first motorized vehicle, or automobile. It was fitted with a four-stroke engine of his own design. It was called a “Motorwagen.”
Several hundred small firms began to manufacture automobiles in the United States after World War I, mainly as an alternative to horse-drawn carriages or steam engines. Their business models, based on the assembly of standard, widely available parts, made it easy for them to obtain capital and technical know-how from other industries–especially the machine shop industry–and to avoid investing in their own manufacturing processes.
The Ford Model T exemplifies the early success of this strategy. It was the first car to be produced with moving assembly lines, which allowed production to be accelerated by reducing labor costs and increasing the speed of the manufacturing process. The Model T sold for $490 in 1914, about one-quarter the cost of a comparable automobile in the decade before.
Henry Ford, who took over the management of the company in 1912, quickly began to make significant improvements in its factory facilities and methods of mass production. These techniques reduced the price of his cars until they became affordable for most middle-class families.
By the late 1920s Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler (later Chrysler-Ford) were the world’s three largest auto companies, with a combined market share of about 20 percent. Their success fueled the rise of a powerful oligopoly in the automobile industry.
During the Great Depression and World War II, factory sales dropped sharply while automobiles were converted to military purposes, but the American public continued to rely on them. In the 1970s automobile sales surpassed those of airplanes for the first time, and in 1982 the industry provided more than one out of every six jobs in the United States.
The automobile has changed the nature of human life in ways that are often difficult to comprehend. It has given people freedom of movement and flexibility of use; it has encouraged urban sprawl; and it has contributed to many social ills, including air pollution, traffic jams, and road rage.