Automobiles and the American Economy


Automobiles, also known as motor cars, are wheeled vehicles that are designed to run primarily on roads. The majority of automobiles are powered by internal combustion engines fueled by volatile inflammable liquids such as gasoline or petrol (petroleum) and may be driven with a variety of driving controls. Some types of automobiles are built for passenger transportation while others are designed to carry cargo or have racing capabilities. The automotive industry is one of the most significant economic sectors worldwide.

The modern automobile evolved from a variety of early road-going vehicles. Karl Benz, a German engineer, is credited with inventing the automobile in the late 1800s, but other inventors and engineers had developed similar devices prior to that time. During the first half of the twentieth century, Americans came to dominate the industry as automobile production increased and became available to the middle class. Henry Ford, a businessman and engineer, innovated mass-production techniques that became standard, and Ford, General Motors and Chrysler emerged as the “Big Three” automakers by the 1920s. American manufacturers were forced to shift their resources toward military production during World War II, but once the war ended automobile production soared around the world to meet rising demand.

In recent decades the automobile has become a dominant means of transportation in the United States, where more than three trillion miles (five trillion kilometers) are traveled each year by passenger automobiles. Automobiles are a vital component of the economy, generating dozens of spin-off industries, including rubber manufacturing, vulcanized oil production and highway construction. They are the most common mode of personal transportation in the world, and they have revolutionized society by enabling people to travel long distances quickly and independently.

Because of the vastness of its land area, the United States had a greater need for automotive transportation than European countries and was an early leader in car production. Cheap raw materials and a lack of tariff barriers encouraged domestic manufacturers to produce automobiles at competitive prices.

As the automobile became more widely available in the 1920s, American society was transformed by it. Cities grew larger and the economy boomed. People gained more freedom and could do a variety of things in their spare time, from shopping at the mall to visiting their relatives in rural areas. In addition, people could look cool in front of their friends by driving fashionable and functional cars.

By the 1960s, however, concerns were growing about the environmental impact of automobiles, including pollution and draining of dwindling world oil supplies. Consumer demand shifted away from the annual reshaping of American-made road cruisers to fuel-efficient, functionally designed and well-built automobiles from Japan and Germany. Engineering was subordinated to questionable aesthetics, and quality deteriorated until by the mid-1960s American-made cars were being delivered to retailers with an average of twenty-four defects per vehicle. This opened the market to foreign automobiles with superior safety and performance standards.