The modern automobile embodies both the promise and the pitfalls of industrialized society. Automobiles allow people to travel rapidly long distances and distribute goods over a vast geographic area, but they also promote sprawl (low-density, low-rise development that degrades landscapes and produces traffic congestion). They confer freedom of movement to their owners and encourage a consumer-goods culture, but they are expensive, pollute the environment, require high energy inputs, and are often unsafe for their passengers.
The history of the automobile began in the late 1800s with Karl Benz’s invention of the internal combustion engine fueled by petroleum-based fuel. Henry Ford followed in the early 1900s with his revolutionary assembly line, making cars affordable to middle-class Americans. The American economy’s abundance of cheap raw materials and the absence of tariff barriers encouraged auto production at a rate never before attempted in Europe.
The automotive industry is one of the world’s largest manufacturing industries, and its products are essential to modern life. Its engineering encompasses a broad range of disciplines that includes aerodynamics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, physics, chemistry, and computer science. The automobile itself is a complex system of interrelated components. Its basic elements include the engine, transmission, cooling and lubrication systems, electrical system, and chassis, which houses the wheels, suspension, steering, braking, and traction systems. The body provides safety, comfort, and appearance, and the overall vehicle performance depends on its weight distribution, center of gravity, the selection of which wheels to use for propulsion, the height of the driver relative to the ground, suspension characteristics, and engine torque output.