Automobiles are a vital part of the American economy. A robust auto industry supports 9.6 million Americans—about 5 percent of all private-sector employment. From cutting-edge facilities that assemble millions of cars and trucks to major transportation infrastructure that exports completed products to points across the country and around the world, automobiles drive America forward.
The automobile revolutionized American society and culture in profound ways. It provided new opportunities for work and leisure, fostering industries like hotels, restaurants, and entertainment parks. It also brought harm to the environment from exhaust pollution, and it led to new government requirements for safety features and highway rules.
In the early twentieth century, automobiles were one of the top consumer goods in terms of value, and they accounted for more than one out of every six jobs in America. This demand spurred the development of modern production techniques. For example, Henry Ford’s Highland Park, Michigan, plant used an innovative moving assembly line that enabled him to produce his Model T runabout for less than the average annual salary in the United States at the time. The resulting volume production allowed Ford to sell automobiles at lower prices and bring them within the range of middle-class incomes.
Historically, the term “automobile” has referred to any self-propelled motor vehicle designed for the transport of passengers and cargo on land. These vehicles were usually powered by internal combustion engines fueled most often by gasoline, a liquid petroleum product. Modern automobiles are typically classified as either passenger cars or commercial vehicles. The latter may be further subdivided into cargo or utility vehicles. Other important differences between these categories are the amount of cargo capacity, seating arrangement, and power of the engine.
The first automobiles were built by a number of engineers and inventors, including Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, and Nicolaus Otto. In the mid- to late nineteenth century, automobile development accelerated, thanks in large part to the invention of the internal combustion engine and improvements in fuel efficiency. By the turn of the twentieth century, automobiles were largely mass produced in factories.
Some of the most popular passenger cars today are sedans. Wagons are similar to sedans, but they have a longer roofline and a hatchback or tailgate in the back instead of a trunk. They are sometimes also designed with raised ground clearance and rugged body cladding to make them more like utility vehicles.
Commercial vehicles, such as delivery trucks, vans, and buses, are able to carry more cargo than passenger cars. They are also more versatile and can be configured for a variety of tasks. The most common types of commercial vehicles are semi-trucks and pick-up trucks. Some of the most famous pickup trucks are the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, both of which were developed by General Motors (GM). In recent years, a number of independent car manufacturers have emerged in the United States. Some of these are notable for their distinctive exterior design, luxury interiors, and performance capabilities.