Almost half a billion vehicles are on the roads throughout the world. Of these, over three-quarters are automobiles. The modern automobile symbolizes both the promise and the pitfalls of the twentieth century. It has transformed social life and enlarged the scope of human freedom. Yet it has also spawned environmental and energy problems of a magnitude previously unimaginable. It is for these reasons that the automobile must be carefully reexamined.
The basic building blocks of the automobile date back several hundred years. In the late 1600s, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens invented a type of internal combustion engine sparked by gunpowder. This enabled the development of a horseless carriage, which was soon put into production. Initially, steam and electric power were used as means of propulsion; both offered significant advantages but had their limitations. Steam engines could not reach very high speeds and were difficult to start, while battery-powered electric cars had a limited range and recharging stations were scarce. It was not until the end of the 19th century that gasoline became the dominant fuel for the automobile.
The first modern automobiles were designed in Germany and France toward the end of the nineteenth century by Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz and Nicolaus Otto. In America, Henry Ford was one of the early innovators, as he developed the mass production technique which made cars affordable for middle-class consumers. Engineering in the postwar era, however, was subordinated to questionable aesthetics and nonfunctional styling at the expense of quality and economy, resulting in the production of gas-guzzling road cruisers that were expensive to operate and contributed to air pollution and a drain on dwindling world oil reserves.