What Are Automobiles?


Automobiles are four-wheeled motor vehicles that use internal combustion to generate the energy needed for movement. These vehicles come in a range of sizes to serve different purposes, from small passenger cars to large trucks used for intercity transportation. In addition to the engine and chassis, automobiles include systems for steering, braking, and body support. All these systems are designed to interact with and support the engine, which converts chemical energy from fuel into mechanical motion for the wheels of the car.

The modern automobile was perfected in Germany and France toward the end of the nineteenth century by such men as Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, and Wilhelm Maybach. They created a variety of innovations, but their greatest contribution was to enable an industrial society to produce these machines in greater numbers than any nation had done before. The United States was an especially receptive market for the new vehicles. Its vast land area provided great potential for sales over a wide geographic region and its system of free trade encouraged the flow of cheap raw materials and skilled labor into manufacturing plants.

As the automobile became more affordable and easier to operate, it accelerated the American predilection toward personal freedom of movement, action, and living. Americans got into their cars and drove away from the cities to spread out in the countryside, building huge suburban areas of single-family houses surrounded by grass lawns. In the process, they incurred enormous social costs for traffic congestion, air pollution, and dependence on dwindling world oil reserves.

Today, there are about 1.4 billion automobiles in operation worldwide. Passenger cars are the dominant form of family transportation. The automobile spawned an entire industry of new businesses, and its technological advancements have revolutionized life in the modern era.

Various definitions of automobiles have emerged over the years, but most accept that an automobile is a wheeled motor vehicle that uses an internal combustion engine to propel itself. Several types of vehicles fit this description, including sedans (which can seat from one to seven passengers), station wagons, and sports utility vehicles, or SUVs. A few cars, such as the BMW X4 shown here, have body styles that don’t easily fit into a category.

Thousands of individual parts make up a modern automobile, and these are arranged into several semi-independent systems that work together to make the car run efficiently and reduce noise and pollution. The most important systems are the engine, which converts chemical energy from gasoline or another fuel into mechanical motion; the radiator, which provides cooling and lubrication for the engine; the transmission, which transmits power from the engine to the wheels; and the chassis, which supports the other components of the automobile. These systems are referred to collectively as the automobile’s “systemic complexity.” The automobile is like a human body, and these systems function in much the same way that organs and limbs do. Each has its own special functions, but they all are essential to the automobile’s basic functioning.