Automobiles – The Key Force For Change in Twenty-First Century Society


Automobiles are four-wheeled vehicles adapted for transporting people and cargo. Modern automobiles use internal combustion engines that burn volatile fuel to produce mechanical energy. They have advanced safety systems that incorporate seat belts, airbags and crumple zones. The automobile was a key force for change in twentieth century society, providing people with greater freedom of movement and action, and stimulating the growth of ancillary industries such as gasoline stations, restaurants and motels.

The scientific and technical building blocks of the automobile go back several hundred years. In the late 1600s Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens invented a type of internal engine sparked by gunpowder. By the early 1800s, the first self-propelled vehicles were being built, and by 1900 the auto industry was booming. But it was unclear which vehicle would win the race for mass production and popularity. Steam cars could travel at high speeds, but they were difficult to start; battery-powered electric cars had a limited range and were expensive; and the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine eventually won out.


Automobiles allow people to cover long distances with ease. This translates into more work opportunities and more social relationships as people can move to locations where they can find work or where they want to live with relative ease. The automobile also brought urban amenities like schools, hospitals and refueling stations to rural areas. And it spawned related industries such as road construction and trucking.


An automobile’s design, performance and operation are continually improving as a result of new engineering and technological developments. These advances include improvements in materials such as steel and nonferrous alloys; advances in mechanical engineering such as friction reduction, transmission systems and engine design; and electrical and electronics engineering, which have allowed automobiles to become safer and easier to operate.

In addition, the automobile is a major consumer of other industrial products such as petroleum and steel, which have been revolutionized by automotive demand. The development of assembly line manufacturing, first pioneered by Ransom Olds at his Oldsmobile factory in 1902 and expanded by Henry Ford in the 1910s, lowered production costs so that affordable automobiles could be widely available to middle-class families.


The main disadvantages of owning a car are that it is a significant environmental polluter and can be very expensive to maintain, in terms of both initial cost and ongoing fuel and maintenance costs. In addition, automobiles can be unsafe if operated by reckless or inexperienced drivers or if they are not maintained properly. The benefits of owning a car, however, outweigh the disadvantages for most people. The average person drives his or her own vehicle more than 4.8 trillion kilometers (three trillion miles) each year, so the advantages of owning a car are significant. In the US alone, the annual sales of automobiles exceed $4.8 trillion. A large percentage of these are passenger vehicles. The majority of them are powered by gasoline, which emits carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.