Automobiles, which are referred to colloquially as cars, or motor vehicles, are powered by internal combustion engines. They are designed to carry a driver and up to a small number of passengers. Cars devoted to carrying cargo, as well as passengers, are called trucks, vans, and buses. The automobile is a symbol of both the promise and the pitfalls of modern industrial society.

The scientific and technical building blocks of the automobile date back several hundred years. In the late 1600s Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens developed a type of internal engine sparked by gunpowder, which laid the groundwork for the horseless carriage. In the nineteenth century manufacturers experimented with steam, electric power, and gasoline engines. Manufacturers of steam-powered cars, which dominated the market until the mid-1890s, produced expensive machines that required a great deal of time to get moving and often had trouble reaching high speeds. Battery-powered electric cars were easier to operate but were limited in range and needed frequent recharging. Gasoline-powered cars, which accounted for 38 percent of the United States market in 1900, were more easily maneuverable and faster than electric cars but had to be manually cranked. The advent of Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T, which used a revolutionary new assembly line system that allowed him to produce a vehicle at a reasonable price, gave the automobile a firm foothold in the American market.

By the mid-1920s the automobile was a central force in a new consumer goods-oriented society, providing one out of every six jobs in America and serving as the lifeblood for many ancillary industries such as petroleum, steel, and chemicals. The automotive industry was the largest consumer of raw materials and the second most significant industrial user of energy, after the food processing industry. The production of the automobile also created a substantial number of jobs in manufacturing, sales, and service.

The automobile revolutionized American life by opening up greater geographic distances for work and social activities, making it possible to move in search of job opportunities and more widely explore potential romantic relationships. It also increased the size of household economies, allowing families to purchase bigger houses and to employ maids and gardeners for their maintenance. Moreover, the automobile created new opportunities for business by permitting people to travel to customers and to meet with them at the place of their choosing. Today the automobile is the symbol of an era that is fading into an Age of Electronics. This era will be marked by the development of electronic devices such as lasers and computers, which will replace mechanical components in some applications and even completely replace them in others. It is difficult to predict what impact these developments will have on the future of the automobile, but it seems likely that its influence will continue to grow. As it does, the automobile will continue to act as a progressive force for change and will increasingly be a major element in the shaping of the American identity.