The Industrial History of Automobiles


Automobiles are motor vehicles used to transport passengers. They have four wheels, can seat one to eight people and are powered by gas or electric power. The automobile has revolutionized life in the United States, enabling individuals to travel anywhere with ease. The industry is responsible for numerous spin-off industries, from the manufacture of tires and lubricants to road construction. It also has led to changes in architecture, suburban development and urban planning. The automobile has even shaped the food that Americans consume while traveling in their cars.

Automobile production has been influenced by technological advances, such as the development of fuel-efficient engines and assembly lines that increased productivity and decreased production costs. The industrialization of the auto business has impacted the management methods and organizational forms of other manufacturing sectors as well.

The automobile is the most widely held mode of transportation in the world. It has become the primary means of transportation for most of the world’s population and is one of the major contributors to global warming. With this in mind, the automotive industry has become a focus of many environmental organizations’ efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.

Few other industrial sectors have had as broad an impact on American society as the automobile. It brought urban amenities to rural areas, ended family isolation and enabled families to move for work or school. It also radically reshaped the layout of cities, altered urban neighborhoods and redefined the concept of family life.

During the first half of the 20th century, automobiles proliferated rapidly. Dozens of new industries sprang up to support the demand for vulcanized rubber, highway construction and other components. The car was a powerful social force, as well, as it broke down class barriers and promoted individualism in the United States.

With its enormous land area and a hinterland of scattered settlements, the United States had far greater needs for automotive transportation than did Europe. The nation’s great manufacturing tradition also ensured that domestic automakers could produce automobiles at a lower price than did European competitors.

As the automobile grew in popularity, it encouraged people to live farther from their place of employment or religious worship, transforming them into “automobile commuters” rather than city dwellers. Consequently, suburban development replaced the city as the dominant form of modern homebuilding. Automobiles helped transform the way that families spend their leisure time, as well. Vacationing by car became common, and motels grew into hotels complete with dining rooms, swimming pools, and air conditioning.

As the automobile dominated America’s streets and byways, mass transit systems fell into decline, while automobile-dependent families demanded more comfort and convenience features. Engineering in the postwar era tended to prioritize questionable aesthetics and nonfunctional styling at the expense of economy and safety, and quality deteriorated. As a result, Detroit’s higher unit profits on gas-guzzling “road cruisers” came at the cost of more air pollution and a drain on dwindling world oil reserves.