Automobiles, as a means of personal transportation, have had a tremendous impact on human society. They have transformed the way people work, play and socialize. In the United States alone, there are about 1.4 billion cars in use today and they travel more than three trillion miles (five trillion kilometers) each year. Throughout the twentieth century, automobile technology and manufacturing methods have rapidly progressed. These technological advances have led to a wide variety of new vehicles, from four-wheel drive SUVs to sleek electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars. The modern automobile is a complex technical system that includes many subsystems with specific design functions. The automobile is a multi-billion dollar industry that provides jobs and income for millions of people worldwide.
The automobile’s influence on human society extends far beyond the realm of engineering and manufacturing, however. It has opened up the world to new possibilities for families and communities. The automobile has enabled urban dwellers to rediscover pristine landscapes and rural residents to shop in towns and cities. It has encouraged family vacations and given young children a sense of freedom as they learn to drive. Teenagers and dating couples have discovered that the automobile is a portable space for private, unstructured time together.
Most of the early automobile companies were small shops that produced a limited number of handmade models. The few that survived into the era of mass production were usually makers of bicycles, manufacturers of horse-drawn carriages or machinery companies. In the early 1900s, manufacturers such as Ford and General Motors developed assembly lines to increase efficiency and reduce production costs. These techniques lowered the price of automobiles to the point that middle-class American families could afford them.
During the 1930s, automobile production and innovation slowed to a crawl as manufacturers devoted most of their efforts to producing for the war effort. Postwar carmakers were faced with a major challenge, however, when government regulations spelled out specifications for safety and emissions; when public concern over air pollution caused by gasoline-powered cars prompted questions about their effect on our dwindling world oil reserves; and when rising fuel prices made consumers question the value of annually restyled “road cruisers.”
Consequently, the automotive industry has had to adapt rapidly to changes in consumer demand. In the 1960s, engineers were forced to put aside questions of aesthetics and nonfunctional styling in favor of fuel efficiency and quality. Eventually, automakers in the United States were left to compete with German and Japanese manufacturers of functionally designed and well-built, fuel efficient cars that could out-perform and outsell the old “road cruisers” of America.