Automobiles are a necessary means of transportation, especially in the modern world where life seems to be inconceivable without access to a car. They provide the freedom to travel where and when one wishes, as well as the opportunity for personal self-expression and recreation. Despite the drawbacks of traffic congestion and parking problems, automobiles continue to be the dominant mode of travel in America.
While automobiles were first perfected in Germany and France toward the end of the 1800s by such men as Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, Nicolaus Otto and Emile Levassor, it was Henry Ford who made them accessible to the masses. At his Highland Park, Michigan plant he innovated mass production techniques that lowered the price of his Model T runabout to an affordable level for middle-class Americans. Ford also revolutionized industrial manufacturing through the use of assembly lines. These innovations facilitated the economic boom in the American automobile industry, which created dozens of spin-off industries such as vulcanized rubber and road construction.
The postwar period saw a decline in the number of active automobile manufacturers as market saturation and technological stagnation set in. The development of mass-production techniques by Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, which emerged as the Big Three, effectively ended free-wheeling competition in American automotive manufacture. Manufacturers devoted most of their resources to producing for the war effort during World War II, and afterward focused on meeting increased demand in Europe and Japan. This shifted the balance of power away from American automotive producers and opened the market to the more functionally designed, fuel-efficient cars produced in Europe and Japan.
Research and development engineers are employed by every automobile manufacturer to improve the body, chassis, engine, drivetrain, controls, safety systems and other aspects of the automotive vehicle. These improvements are the basis for competitiveness in the marketplace, and they can give motorists the option to choose a particular model based on its handling, comfort features, speed capability, fuel economy, price and other factors.
The automobile has changed the way people live, and it continues to be a powerful force for social change. It has allowed people to live farther from work and to do business in distant cities. It has opened up many new opportunities and given millions of Americans a sense of personal freedom that would not be possible without it. The automobile has also spawned a host of spin-off industries such as tire and engine manufacturing, parts and accessories, road construction, food and beverage production, clothing and cosmetics sales, entertainment and media, as well as a wide range of technical advances in electronics. Nevertheless, as the automobile has become virtually universally owned in America, it is no longer acting as a progressive force for change. Other technologies, such as the electronic media and lasers, are charting a different future. As a result, the age of the automobile may soon be melding into a new Age of Electronics.