History of the Automobile

The Automobile

The development and impact of automobiles on society.

The History of Automobiles

The first automobile powered by an internal combustion engine was invented and designed in Germany during the 1880s. The first gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine were develpoed by the German engineers Karl Benz (1885) and Gottlieb Daimler (1886). In 1903, Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company and started an era of U.S. leadership in auto production that lasted for most of the twentieth century. In 1908, Ford introduced the highly popular Model T, which by 1913 was being manufactured through assembly line techniques. Innovations by Ford, General Motors, and other manufacturers near Detroit, Michigan, made that city the manufacturing center for the U.S. car industry. By the 1920s, General Motors had become the world’s largest auto manufacturer, a distinction it still held into 2004. Over time, the auto industry in all countries became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies, and by 1939, the Big Three—Ford, General Motors, and Daimler Chrysler—had 90 percent of the U.S. market.

During the 1970s, the U.S. auto industry began to lose ground to Japanese and European automakers, and U.S. citizens relied to an increasing degree on imported autos. Japan, for example, surpassed the United States in auto production in the 1970s. Oil shortages and embargoes during the 1970s caused the price of gasoline to rise and put a premium on smaller autos, most of which were produced by foreign companies. Foreign cars also earned a reputation for higher quality during this period. The share of foreign cars in the U.S. market rose from 7.6 percent in 1960 to 24.9 percent in 1984.

In the early 1980s, the U.S. auto companies were suffering greatly, and the U.S. government bailed out the nearly bankrupt Chrysler Corporation. The U.S. government also negotiated a quota system with Japan that called for limits on Japanese autos imported into the United States, thereby raising the prices of Japanese cars. By the 1990s, the U.S. auto companies had regained much of the ground lost to foreign companies. In the mid-1990s, however, international manufacturing agreements meant that few cars, U.S. or foreign, were made entirely in one country.  

As of 2003, Ford is the world’s second-largest auto manufacturer after General Motors Corporation.

Development and Impact of Automobiles

The development of the automobile resulted in major sociological changes and caused new economic conditions.  The main sociological changes caused over the years by the automobile included:

  •  increased mobility of the U.S. population,
  • accelerated development of remote areas that would not have otherwise been accessible,
  • the ability to live farther from places of work (suburbia),
  • increased access to goods and services,
  • urban sprawl
  • reduced extended family and multi-generational households,
  • increased access to better education and healthcare.

The main economic and health impacts of the automobile over the years include:

  • the creation of an industry which employs a significant number of people,
  • creation of new technologies and industries to support and supply them,
  • a significant monetary cost in injury and property damage, and
  • increased air and water pollution.

The automobile has been a key force for change in twentieth-century America. These included changes for industry, technology, and everyday life. New industries and jobs developed to supply the demand for automobile parts and fuel. These included petroleum and gasoline, rubber, and then plastics. 

During the 1920s the industry became the backbone of a new consumer goods-oriented society. By the mid-1920s it ranked first in value of product, and in 1982 it provided one out of every six jobs in the United States.

In the 1920s the automobile became the lifeblood of the petroleum industry, one of the chief customers of the steel industry, and the biggest consumer of many other industrial products. The technologies of these ancillary industries, particularly steel and petroleum, were revolutionized by its demands.

The automobile also brought harm to the environment. Exhaust from gas-burning cars brought pollution. And undeveloped land was used to build highways and related industries.

The automobile gave people more personal freedom and access to jobs and services. It led to development of better roads and transportation. It also contributed to the rise of leisure activities. And with leisure came new services. These included motels, hotels, amusement parks and other recreation, restaurants and fast food. 

The automobile ended rural isolation and brought urban amenities—most important, better medical care and schools—to rural America (while paradoxically the farm tractor made the traditional family farm obsolete). The modern city with its surrounding industrial and residential suburbs is a product of the automobile and trucking.

The automobile changed the architecture of the typical American dwelling, altered the conception and composition of the urban neighborhood, and freed homemakers from the narrow confines of the home. No other historical force has so revolutionized the way Americans work, live, and play.

In 1980, 87.2 percent of American households owned one or more motor vehicles, 51.5 percent owned more than one, and fully 95 percent of domestic car sales were for replacement. Americans have become truly auto-dependent.

But though automobile ownership is virtually universal, the motor vehicle no longer acts as a progressive force for change. New forces—the electronic media, the laser, the computer, and the robot probably foremost among them—are charting the future. A period of American history that can appropriately be called the Automobile Age is melding into a new Age of Electronics.

The Future of Automobiles

The automobile of the future would be battery-powered, linked to networks, and smart in terms of automated driving, the study found. And coupled with that are on-board digital entertainment and shared-mobility features that will also require powerful computing technology. Future changes in automobile technology are likely to include:

  • increased fuel efficiency and new industries to support it. 
  • improved safety through engineering research and development (both vehicle and road), and
  • increased sophistication of controls and instruments, many of which will contribute to safety.