The Automobile Industry

The automobile, a four-wheeled motor vehicle designed to carry passengers, is one of the most universal of modern technologies. It is a complex technical system, with subsystems that function in concert to propel the car forward. Most are powered by an internal-combustion engine that burns a volatile fuel, usually gasoline. The automotive industry is a global business that is one of the world’s largest and most important industries, producing 73 million automobiles worldwide in 2007.

The scientific and technological building blocks for the modern automobile go back several hundred years. In the late 1600s Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens developed a type of internal engine sparked by gunpowder. By the end of the 19th century, automobiles were commercially successful in Europe and America. Powered by steam, electric power, or by Karl Benz’s internal-combustion flat engine, these vehicles were able to travel long distances but had limited speed and recharging stations were hard to find.

Automobile production was highly competitive until 1910 when Henry Ford introduced a moving assembly line that revolutionized the industry. He lowered the price of his Model T to $575, which was less than the average annual wage and mass personal “automobility” became possible. By the time the Model T was retired from production in 1927, 15 million had been sold. Ford and General Motors soon became the dominant American automobile producers.

A growing number of Americans began to buy cars and they quickly embraced the freedom they offered. They could visit far-flung places that had been inaccessible. Family vacations allowed urban dwellers to rediscover pristine landscapes and rural residents to shop in towns and cities. Teenagers found independence and romance through driving freedom. And the automobile accelerated America’s shift from an agricultural society to a consumer goods economy, making it the biggest consumer of steel and petroleum products by the 1920s.

By the 1960s, however, the benefits of automobile ownership were eroding as consumers sought more comfortable and safer vehicles that were easier to operate. Engineering was subordinated to questionable aesthetics of nonfunctional styling, and quality deteriorated to the point that by the 1970s American-made cars had an average of twenty-four defects per unit, many of them safety-related. In addition, the higher unit profits that Detroit made on gas-guzzling road cruisers were being offset by the social costs of increased air pollution and a drain on dwindling world oil reserves.

In the United States, the era of annually restyled “road cruisers” came to an end with government standards for automobile safety, emissions of pollutants, and energy consumption; with increased competition from manufacturers in other countries; and with the penetration of U.S. and world markets first by the German Volkswagen Beetle (a modern version of the classic Model T) and then by Japanese fuel-efficient, functionally designed, well-built small cars. This ended the era of “big cars, big profits” and ushered in the Age of the Small Car. The smaller and more economical models that have dominated the market since the 1980s reflect the technological advances that have taken place in areas such as electronic computers, high-strength plastics, new alloys of steel and nonferrous metals, and advanced materials such as aluminum and titanium.