The Automobile – A Brief History


The automobile is one of the most widely used of all modern technologies. In the United States, alone, passenger cars carry people more than three trillion miles (almost five trillion kilometres) each year. The development of the automobile is a fascinating story of the human imagination and its ability to transform society.

The earliest vehicles were steam-powered. Later, the internal combustion engine made possible gasoline-fueled motor vehicles that were a major factor in the industrialization of the Western world and helped to transform modern life. The automobile enabled women to work outside the home and gave them the freedom to travel between towns to visit friends or family. It also stimulated participation in outdoor recreation, which resulted in the expansion of tourist-related industries such as motels and service stations. It ended rural isolation and brought urban amenities, such as schools, hospitals, and recreational facilities, to many rural areas. It spurred growth of the construction industry, which created streets and highways that are now the backbone of modern transportation infrastructure.

After World War II, the car became a staple of the American economy. However, concerns about the pollution that automobiles cause and their drain on the world’s oil supplies opened the market to foreign manufacturers of fuel-efficient, functionally designed, well-built small cars. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, controversy swirled around issues of nonfunctional styling, safety standards, and economic aspects such as the reputation of American cars as ‘gas guzzlers’. However, in the late 1980s and 1990s, automotive technology accelerated again.