Automobiles are four-wheeled vehicles, usually based on a chassis and designed to be used primarily on roads for the transportation of people and their personal possessions. They are normally propelled by an internal combustion engine powered by a volatile fuel. Having your own automobile can save you a lot of time and energy that would otherwise be lost on the unpredictability of public transport, or coordinating a ride through alternative means. It can also open up a lot of opportunities for work and leisure travel, as well as allowing you to visit more places than just your local area.
Probably no invention changed modern life more than the automobile. It became the backbone of a consumer goods-oriented society and led to huge changes in industry and technology, such as the assembly line, which made cars affordable for middle-class families. It also spurred a number of new businesses, such as gasoline and tire companies, rubber, steel and plastics manufacturers, and services like gas stations and convenience stores.
The exact inventor of the automobile is a matter of debate, though most accounts credit the Germans Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler with developing a practical car powered by an internal combustion engine, in 1885/1886. But it was Henry Ford who turned the automobile into a household fixture by applying mass production techniques, which reduced the price of his Model T to the point that most middle-class Americans could afford one.
As the demand for automobiles rose in the 1920s, engineering became subordinated to questionable aesthetics and nonfunctional styling, and quality deteriorated to the point that by 1960 American-made cars were delivered with an average of twenty-four defects per unit. The economic boom that followed World War II fueled auto production, and by the late 1950s it was common to see cars with features such as power steering and power brakes.
In recent years, advances in materials and technology have created new designs that can improve vehicle safety, performance and efficiency. These include the use of high-strength plastics, computer-controlled engines and advanced alloys of steel and other metals. In addition, automotive research and development engineers work to enhance the safety, ergonomics and comfort of the vehicle body and chassis, as well as the drivetrain, engine, suspension and other parts. In some cases, these improvements are a direct response to government regulation and consumer demand, while in others they reflect new technological developments in electronics, computers and high-strength, lightweight materials. Automobiles are now considered complex technical systems that can be optimized for specific functions, such as off-road use or high-speed, limited-access road driving. For example, vehicles that are used on rugged terrain need to have durable, simple systems while those intended for the highways require more passenger comfort options, improved high-speed handling and optimization of engine and high-speed braking performance.