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The Automobile and Its Impact on Society

The automobile, or motorcar as it is sometimes called, is a four-wheeled vehicle used primarily for passenger transportation. It is propelled by an internal combustion engine that burns a volatile fuel. Its basic design has not changed much since the first models appeared in the late 1800s. It is a complex technical system, incorporating many subsystems designed to perform specific functions. These include body, chassis, and drive systems; power train; steering and braking; and electrical systems. There are also many safety and emission control subsystems.

The modern automobile was developed in the late 19th century by Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, and Nicolaus Otto of Germany, Emile Levassor and Auguste Doriot of France, and others. Each was a pioneer in his own way, but it was Henry Ford who made the car practical and affordable for most Americans. He introduced mass production techniques to the industry with his Model T, and he paid his workers $5 per day — an astounding amount at the time.

Since the end of World War II, cars have continued to be the predominant form of transportation in most nations. The car has had a great impact on society and has given rise to a number of social problems, including traffic congestion and air pollution. The automobile has revolutionized the architecture of the urban landscape, altered the conception and composition of suburban neighborhoods, and liberated homemakers from the constraints of the domestic sphere. It has enabled people to work, play, and shop at their leisure. It has transformed the nature of human communication. It has shaped America’s national character and culture and has brought its citizens together.

There are now some 1.4 billion cars in operation worldwide, most of them powered by petroleum-based gasoline. It is estimated that the average American drives more than three trillion miles (five trillion kilometer) in his or her life. The automobile has been the most influential invention of the twentieth century. There are two strong claims for its impact: infrastructural: the automobile allows us to traverse cities, states, woods, mountains, and deserts in reasonable time; it makes business, education, family life, and recreation more available than ever before; and cultural: the car symbolizes the independence of American culture from the rest of the world.

The greatest challenges that the automobilia faces today are related to its basic safety. Although the automobile is a relatively safe mode of transport, the risk of serious injury and death to its passengers remains high because of the errors that human drivers make. In addition, the wheels lose traction at about half gravity of deceleration, making it dangerous to stop in an emergency. It is not feasible to make the automobile completely safe, but it is possible to significantly reduce the probability of such accidents by installing advanced electronic controls and by modifying roadways to incorporate steel rails for emergency braking. Some manufacturers have even prototyped an automated system that would control the automobile and prevent a crash.