Automobiles and Their Effects on Society

Automobiles are a form of transportation that uses a motor to power wheels to propel it forward. They can be powered by a variety of fuels, but most use gasoline. Some also use alternative fuels such as ethanol or natural gas. In the United States, there are more than 1.2 billion automobiles. Many of these are passenger cars, which carry people rather than cargo. Others are trucks, vans, hatchbacks, station wagons and SUVs. All have a chassis, engine, drivetrain and steering.

The development of automobiles has had a significant effect on society. They changed transportation and opened up new industries and services. People could travel farther and more quickly, and jobs in ancillary industries arose to supply them with fuel, parts and supplies. Roads and other infrastructure were built to accommodate the growing number of automobiles.

Early automobiles were powered by steam, electric power or a combination of both. Steam engines had the potential to reach high speeds, but their range was limited and recharging stations were hard to find. Gasoline was found to be the most convenient, cost effective and reliable way to power an automobile. It was plentiful and easily stored in large tanks. Production of automobiles boomed, and the first large car companies formed.

By the 1920s the automobile was a vital part of America’s consumer goods-oriented economy. It was the largest purchaser of steel and petroleum products and consumed a significant amount of rubber and plastics, too. It was one of the major providers of jobs in the country, generating more than six million positions in its heyday. It also generated more revenue for government, as taxes on cars and drivers helped to finance roads and other infrastructure.

During the postwar era, engineers were swayed by fashion and popular opinion to focus on nonfunctional styling at the expense of quality, safety and economy. By the mid-1960s American-made cars were averaging twenty-four defects per vehicle, many of them safety related. Concerns arose about the pollution caused by the vehicles and the draining of world oil reserves, which opened the market to foreign producers of functionally designed, well-built small cars from Germany and Japan.

Today, automobile manufacturers work to improve safety, comfort and performance through design, engineering and manufacturing. They also work to meet environmental regulations and limits on greenhouse gases. The auto industry accounts for 27 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is currently working on ways to reduce these emissions.

Cars can be grouped into three main categories by their body styles: Sedans have four doors and are the most common type of automobile. A coupe has two doors and is considered sportier than a sedan. An SUV is a vehicle that combines the towing-capability of a pickup truck with the passenger-carrying space of a sedan or coupe. The automobile has had a profound impact on American culture. It enabled families to rediscover pristine landscapes and travel long distances for vacations, and young people gained freedom with the ability to drive. However, it has not been without drawbacks: Traffic jams became commonplace; accidents and fatalities increased; and demands for licensing and safety regulation arose.