Automobiles are a key piece of modern technology, and the development of this industry has profoundly affected American life. As the largest manufacturing sector in the world, its management practices, organizational forms, and response to environmental pressures are influential throughout society.
Nicolas Joseph Cugnot built the first self-propelled vehicle (Paris, 1789), a three-wheeled carriage with a steam engine that pushed it along at a speed of about 3 mph (5 kph). In 1801 the British engineer Richard Trevithick developed an improved version using a geared wheel arrangement and an internal combustion engine powered by coal or wood gas.
The car became a popular mode of personal transportation in the early 20th century, as manufacturers such as Ransom E. Olds and Henry Ford innovated mass production techniques to bring the automobile within reach of middle-class Americans. By 1920, the car had replaced train travel as the dominant form of transportation in America, and the auto industry had become a global enterprise.
Automobiles have also had profound social effects, encouraging families to spend time together on trips that would have been impractical by other means. Teenagers gained independence from parents, and dating couples found a portable place for intimate encounters. At the same time, automobile ownership triggered an increase in traffic accidents and fatalities, leading to government regulation and licensing requirements.
Pollutants resulting from the operation of automobiles have begun to pose serious environmental problems. Tire rubber, motor oil, and brake fluid accumulate on roadways and are washed into streams, with consequences almost as bad as untreated sewage. Efforts to reduce pollution by improving fuel efficiency, designing safer vehicles, and recycling scrapped cars are ongoing.