An automobile (sometimes called a motor car or a motor vehicle) is a wheeled passenger transportation vehicle that is powered by an internal combustion engine, typically fueled with gasoline. It has four wheels, seats one to seven people and can be driven on roads or off-road. The automobile is one of the world’s most widespread modern technologies, and it has a profound impact on human society.
The automobile became a key force for change in twentieth-century America, and its emergence as a mass market industry helped give rise to the consumer goods economy. It is one of the largest markets for steel, the largest customer of petroleum and a major consumer of many other industrial products. It has revolutionized the lives of millions of people and created a huge range of new businesses, such as motels, hotels, restaurants, recreational parks and amusement services.
Automobiles are complicated vehicles, and they have many different systems that must function together in order to operate safely and reliably. These include a chassis, which provides the frame that supports the body; the drive system, which converts the energy from the engine into motion for the wheels; the electrical system, which provides the power for lights, windows and the radio; and the steering and braking systems, which help the driver control the vehicle. Automobiles also use a variety of fluids to assist in the operation of these systems, including engine oil, transmission fluid and brake fluid.
A large part of the difficulty of designing and building automobiles lies in reconciling advanced design with moderate price. The 1901 Mercedes-Benz Model N was an important step in this direction, but it was still too expensive to appeal to middle-class Americans. It was the American Ford Motor Company that successfully combined state-of-the-art design with affordable price and low operating costs.
With its vast land area and a hinterland of isolated settlements, the United States had a much greater need for automobiles than Europe did. This fact, coupled with the country’s manufacturing tradition and the absence of tariff barriers between states, ensured a seller’s market.
By the 1920s, the American automobile industry was the largest in the world, and it was the backbone of a new consumer goods-oriented society. It was also a vital source of jobs and helped to fuel economic growth, but it also caused environmental damage and contributed to dwindling international oil supplies. Engineering was often subordinated to questionable aesthetics and nonfunctional styling, and unit profits soared.
Choosing a car or SUV that’s right for you depends on how you’ll use it. If you plan on off-road driving, look for a vehicle with durable, simple systems designed to resist severe overloads and extreme operating conditions. On the other hand, if you’ll mostly be using your vehicle for limited-access road systems, you might want to choose one with more passenger comfort options and optimized high-speed handling and stability. Whichever you choose, remember that the safest cars are those with a high reliability rating from J.D. Power and Consumer Reports.