Automobiles are four-wheeled vehicles designed to transport people and goods. They have an internal combustion engine or electric motor that generates power to move the vehicle. Automobiles are driven by humans, but they also have the ability to operate on their own without human control. Depending on their purpose, automobiles may be able to drive themselves or be pushed, pulled, or rolled. Examples of automobiles include cars, trucks, motorcycles, and scooters.

The automobile was first developed in Germany and France in the late 1800s, but Americans rapidly came to dominate the industry in the 1920s. Henry Ford innovated mass production techniques, and Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler emerged as the “Big Three” auto companies. The industry was forced to funnel its resources to the war effort during World War II, and automobile production in Europe and Japan soared afterward to meet demand.

Automobiles changed everyday life. Industries and jobs sprung up to supply the cars, and services like gas stations and convenience stores appeared. The car embodied the long-standing predilection, especially in the United States, for individual freedom of movement and action. It was not tied to a fixed community, and it provided an outlet for the desire to spread out away from urban centers in suburban areas where each family could have its own home surrounded by green grass lawns.

With its vast territory and a hinterland of scattered communities, the United States had a greater need for automotive transportation than the nations of Europe. Its large population and high per capita income fueled the great demand, and its tariff-free trade with foreign countries encouraged a national market that favored sellers.

As the automobile grew in popularity, engineering was subordinated to the questionable aesthetics of nonfunctional styling at the expense of safety and economy. By the mid-1960s, quality deteriorated to the point where American-made cars were delivered to retail buyers with an average of twenty-four defects a unit. Concerns arose about the pollution caused by gasoline-powered vehicles and the draining of dwindling world oil reserves.

The era of the annually restyled road cruiser ended with the imposition of federal standards of automobile safety (1966), emission of pollutants (1965 and 1970), and energy consumption (1975); with escalating gasoline prices following the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979; and, most importantly, with the penetration of both U.S. and world markets first by the German Volkswagen “Bug” (a modern Model T) and then by Japanese fuel-efficient, functionally designed, well-built small cars. With these forces ebbing, the Age of the Automobile is melding into a new Age of Electronics.