The automobile is a symbol of twentieth century society, and life in modern America seems inconceivable without access to one. Passenger cars alone are estimated to travel more than three trillion miles (five trillion kilometres) each year, and in recent years it has become commonplace for Americans to buy hundreds of different models. But, while it is true that the automobile ushered in an era of prosperity and convenience for many American families, there are signs that it has reached its limit, and that new forces may be charting a more complex course for the future.
Like the human body, the automobile consists of a number of interdependent systems. The chassis, analogous to the skeletal system of the human body, provides support for the engine and other parts of the car. The wheels, suspension and steering are attached to the chassis, and the engine is connected by tubes that carry coolant and lubricating oil, as well as fuel. The cylinders, pistons and ignition system constitute the heart of the car, and they are all surrounded by an air-cooled, water-bathed engine block that reduces the noise and heat generated by the engines.
Despite the fact that the automobile was invented in Europe, it rapidly became the dominant form of transportation in the United States. The vast land mass of the United States ensured great demand for automotive transportation, and a tradition of American manufacturing helped to make the automobile affordable. The development of assembly line production by Ransom Eli Olds at his Oldsmobile plant in 1902 and by Henry Ford at his Model T factory lowered the cost of the automobile, making it accessible to many middle-class families.
As the automobile grew in popularity, manufacturers began to develop advanced technology to enhance performance, convenience and safety. Electrical and self-starting engines, electric lighting and ignition, and independent suspension improved efficiency and safety; while four-wheel brakes, a system of hydraulic controls for the braking system, and other innovations increased handling and stability. A variety of pistonless rotary engine designs have also tried to compete with conventional gasoline engines, but none have yet to gain widespread acceptance.
By the late 1960s, however, engineering had begun to suffer in the automobile industry, with nonfunctional styling favored over economy and safety, and quality deteriorating. In addition, the higher unit profits Detroit made from gas-guzzling road cruisers came at a social cost in terms of escalating air pollution and a drain on dwindling world oil reserves.
In the midst of these changes, some manufacturers have introduced more environmentally friendly and technologically advanced vehicles, but the era of the annually restyled road cruiser appears to be nearing its end. With growing concerns over the environmental impact of automobiles, and energy consumption of a scale not seen in the past, it is time for a rigorous re-examination of the role that the automobile will play in the future. A new age is on the horizon. The Age of the Automobile is melding into an Age of Electronics.