7 The Evolution of Automobiles

Kyle Lonergan

7.1 Introduction


  • Automobile – a road vehicle, typically with four wheels, powered by an internal combustion engine or electric motor and able to carry a small number of people
  • Autonomous – denoting or performed by a device capable of operating without direct human control
  • Hybrid – vehicles that are powered by an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, which uses energy stored in batteries

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter students should be able to:

  • Understand the impact of automobiles on society (includes history)
  • Understand the basic components of automobiles
  • Differentiate between past and present automobiles
  • Explain the evolution of technology in automobiles

You have already learned about one main mode of transportation, the one by sea, in this chapter you will learn about another via land. This is referring specifically to automobiles, also known as cars. Since the creation of these in the late 19th century, the technological advancements have been immense and the impact of them on society is arguably even greater. They have changed the way we think about day-to-day transportation, and created new industries and jobs that did not exist before.

Throughout history, the invention of automobiles has continuously changed the world, our lifestyles, and transportation as we know it. As technology advances so will the automotive industry, similar to its progression from the origin to modern day. This chapter will explain the technology that goes into automobiles, the history of automobiles, the impact of automobiles on society, and where automobiles are headed in the near future.


Figure 7.1 The car pictured above is the Bugatti Divo and is 1 of 40 produced. This car is capable of reaching a top speed of 236 mph thanks to its quad turbocharged W16.

“Bugatti Divo” by Matti Blume is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

7.2 The Technology of Automobiles

Key Takeaway

This section will explain the basics of what makes up an automobile. It will explain the key parts and their functions.

The four essential components of an automobile are the chassis, the engine, the transmission system, and the body. Without these an automobile would not be able to work or function at all. The chassis of an automobile is what incorporates all the moving parts of a car. The chassis of an automobile has the frame, suspension system, axles, and wheel as the main components. The frame is essentially the skeleton of the vehicle and it supports the weight of the engine, transmission, and car body. The suspension system absorbs the vibrations due to up and down movement of wheels. This consists of springs and shock absorbers on each corner of the car that make the ride of the car smoother. The axles of the car receive power from the engine, which in turn rotate the wheels while also supporting the car’s weight. Lastly, the wheels of the car are what the car rolls on. Traveling at any speed would not be possible without the wheel.

The engine is the source of power to an automobile and is the most important part of a car because it enables the movement of the car. Most cars have some variation of the internal combustion engine that uses petrol, or gasoline, as fuel. Another type of engine is the compression ignition engine using diesel as fuel. The engine consists of fixed cylinders and moving pistons. All engines need air, fuel, and spark to operate. The energy is made from igniting the air and fuel mixture. The expanding combustion gases push the piston, which in turn rotates the crankshaft. Ultimately, through a system of gears in the powertrain, this motion drives the vehicle’s wheels. In a diesel engine, only air is inhaled into the engine and then compressed. Diesel engines then spray the fuel into the hot compressed air causing it to ignite. The type of engine determines the horsepower of the car and the fuel consumption which is the efficiency of the engine.

After the power is created in the engine, it must travel through the transmission system. The transmission’s job is to send the power from the engine to the wheels of the car. The system is made up of the clutch, gearbox, differential, and axle. The clutch is what engages and disengages the engine to transmission itself, making it possible to change gears. The gearbox is the component that has the gear train. The gearbox’s job is to increase torque when needed and change gears to decrease the RMP (rotations per minute) of the engine while the car accelerates. The propeller shaft transmits the power output from the gearbox to the axle. The motion of the propeller shaft is fed into the differential which is 90 degrees to the axle. The main purpose of the differential is to have the wheels turn at different speeds while the car is turning. The last part of the transmission system is the axle. The axle receiving power is called the ‘live’ axle and the one not receiving power is called a ‘dead’ axle. Its purpose is to turn the wheels of the car which is the final step of transmitting power from the engine into the tires on the road.

The last essential component of an automobile is the car body. This is what forms the shape of the car, gives room for passengers and storage, and houses the systems of the automobile. The body typically consists of front and rear bumpers, side skirts, spoilers, and hoods of cars. They are designed differently depending on the purpose of the car. It determines the aerodynamics, safety, and the overall look of the car. This is where all external features of the car are displayed such as the head and tail lights, engine grill and hood, the storage trunk, and all windows.

7.3 History of Automobiles

Key Takeaway

This section will dive into the history of automobiles and how they progressed through the decades.

It might surprise you that the first automobiles were actually steam and electrically powered. These were being developed as early as the late 1700s and early 1800s. However these vehicles were very primitive and had many shortcomings. It was not until 1885 that the first gas powered car was invented by Karl Benz. The invention of the gas powered automobile sparked the beginning of vehicular evolution in America. The first cars did not have any of the things we are accustomed to like seat belts, a windshield, rearview mirrors, or turn signals. One of the biggest milestones in automobile history was achieved by the man Henry Ford in 1908. This was the creation of an affordable car that the general population could buy, because of the invention of the assembly line. The four-cylinder, twenty-horsepower Model T, first offered in October 1908, sold for $825. Its two-speed transmission made it easy to drive, and features such as its detachable cylinder head made it easy to repair. Its high chassis was designed to clear the bumps in rural roads as well as steel that made it durable and lighter.

In the 1930s, market saturation occurred simultaneously with technological stagnation. This resulted in automobile production and innovation slowly to a crawl, and not being as dramatic as it once was. Additionally, with World War II automakers focused on producing for the war effort, and in total made one-fifth of the nation’s war production. Postwar the issue into the 1960s became the nonfunctional styling of American made automobiles, the quality of safety of the cars, and the economical aspect relating to ‘gas guzzling’ cars. Questions also surfaced about the pollution of automobiles and the draining of the world oil reserves. This opened the market to foreign countries such as Germany and Japan. Especially the fuel-efficient, functionally designed, well-built small cars from Japan. In 1980 Japan became the world’s leading auto producer and still holds the position today.

In the 1990s, automakers sold a majority of sport utility vehicles (SUVs), pickup trucks, and minivans. The reason behind this was the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards differentiating between passenger cars and light trucks, the automakers were able to sell large and heavy vehicles without fear of the CAFE fines. Meanwhile American automakers invested and purchased percentage ownership of many foreign companies. This caused the foreign automakers to continue to establish more production facilities in the United States. The 2000s began with a recession along with the effects of the September 11th tragedy in 2001 the stock market declined. In 2005, oil prices began rising and peaked in 2008. With the American automakers heavily dependent upon the gas-guzzling light truck sales for their profits, their sales fell sharply. The late 2010s and early 2020s also saw the rise of electric-only brand Tesla, which became the most valuable automaker in the world by market capitalization in January 2020, and produced over half a million cars in 2020.


Figure 7.3 This image shows the change of the shape and style of cars from 1880-2020.

“Vehicle Evolution Illustrations & Vectors” by Dreamstime is under a Royalty-free license  

7.4 Impact of Automobiles on Society

Key Takeaway

This section will describe the positive and negative impacts of automobiles on society.

The automobile is arguably one of the greatest inventions in human history. The automobile changed many things in the United States. These included changes for industry and technology and everyday life. Automobile manufacturing became one the first industries to use the assembly line. The automobile gave people more personal freedom and access to jobs and services. It led to development of better roads and transportation. Industries and new jobs developed to supply the demand for automobile parts and fuel. These included petroleum and gasoline, rubber, and then plastics. Services like gas stations and convenience stores sprang up. Henry Ford was a very big part of this because he invented the assembly line and Model T. Ford realized that if he could use the assembly line to produce one model of car with basic features, he could produce cars faster and with less cost, which made automobiles more affordable to the general American public.


Figure 7.4 A modern American highway that is filled with cars. There is an extensive network of these throughout the United States.

“File:401 C-E Split.jpg” by Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0


During the beginning of the 20th century, the middle class in the United States was expanding greatly. This meant that more people could afford to buy a car, and overall people had more leisure time and freedom. Furthermore, cars gave people the ability to travel in and out of cities as well as between cities. More cars on the road helped in the development of paved highways and along with more cars and better roads came the suburbs. This allowed for easier transportation of goods which was beneficial to the economy. Also, automobiles positively impacted women in society. When America entered World War I in 1917, men went off the fight and women stayed home to provide for the war effort. This caused women to start working jobs in the factory or elsewhere, which were typically roles of men. Also during the 1910s and 1920s, there was a push for women’s voting rights and the automobile helped them do that. Women drove around with “votes for women” banners and even gave speeches from their cars. Women did not always have this right in America or personal freedom or the money to drive. The U.S. Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1920 which was a very big change to society.

The main negatives and modern problems of automobiles on society are the impacts on the environment and human health. The car is a major contributor to air pollution, climate change and the depletion of natural resources like fossil fuels. The pollution caused by cars is evident in large cities with massive driving populations, like Los Angeles, New York City and Tokyo. The exhaust fumes produced by automobiles cover the cities in smog. These are called greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases allow sunlight to enter the Earth’s atmosphere more than it naturally should.  When sunlight is reflected off the surface as heat, greenhouse gasses absorb and trap the heat in the atmosphere that we live in. This in turn causes the overall temperature of the Earth to increase as well. Also, when cars are trashed, their remains of plastics and toxic lead battery acids are thrown into landfills instead of being recycled. This results in harmful effects directly onto the environment. When it comes to humans, contaminated air and waste in the water can very easily jeopardize health. Finally, automobiles can cause death. If traveling fast enough a car can kill drivers and passengers as well as pedestrians in an instant.

7.5 The Future of Automobiles

Key Takeaway

This section will talk about the future of automobiles and the technological advancements that can be expected. Mainly hybrid, electrical, and autonomous cars as society shifts away from the traditional internal combustion engine.

Though diesel vehicles have a better fuel economy cruising at high speeds, the emissions are worse compared to the emissions from gasoline engines. Besides the advance of the current internal combustion engine technology, concerns of how best to reduce fossil fuel usage and utilise renewable energies are becoming increasingly important. This is where the hybrid vehicle shines. The call to fame of the hybrid system is being independent of any type of power train. In theory, a hybrid vehicle is one that uses any combination of liquid, gas, and electricity, bio fuels, hydrogen, and electricity. The true benefits of hybrid vehicles can be understood that hybrid use is a bridging system. An electrical power boosting platform to be applied together with a powertrain from an internal combustion engine. This reduces the environmental impact because of the hybrid fuel source. In this context, hybrid technology is proposed as a broad platform to introduce new powertrain systems. Moreover, advances in alternative energy supply will make these new systems gradually available to the mass market. Through similar thinking, such developments will undergo significant technological progress across a wide field of science. Engineers at Toyota are committed to teamwork with all interested parties in order to achieve a better future.

In 2016 there was a significant movement toward the mainstreaming of electric vehicles with improved battery technology, tougher emissions standards, and the demand for clean technology. The growth has been steady, but slower than supporters of the technology would like to see. All-electric vehicles (EVs), also referred to as battery electric vehicles, have an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine. The vehicle uses a large traction battery pack to power the electric motors and must be plugged into a wall outlet or charging equipment, also called electric vehicle supply equipment. The vehicle does not release any exhaust from a tailpipe and does not contain the typical liquid fuel components, such as a fuel pump, fuel line, or fuel tank because it runs on electricity. All-electric vehicles use a battery pack to store the electrical energy that powers the motor. EV batteries are charged by plugging the vehicle into an electric power source. Although electricity production may contribute to air pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency categorizes all-electric vehicles as zero-emission vehicles because they do not directly produce exhaust or tailpipe emissions. Today’s EVs generally have a shorter driving range per charge compared to conventional vehicles per tank of gas. However, the increasing range of new models and the continued development of high-powered charging equipment is reducing this gap. The efficiency and driving range of EVs vary substantially based on driving conditions. Extreme outside temperatures tend to reduce range because more energy must be used to heat or cool the cabin. EVs are more efficient in city driving conditions than highway travel. City driving conditions have more frequent stops, which maximize the benefits of regenerative braking.

Self-driving vehicles are automobiles that require limited human intervention. Also known as autonomous or “driverless” cars. They combine sensors and software to control, navigate, and drive the vehicle. Currently, there are no legally operating, fully-autonomous vehicles in the United States. However, there are partially-autonomous vehicles currently for sale. Though still in its early stages of development, self-driving technology is becoming increasingly common and could drastically transform our transportation as we know it. Different cars are capable of different levels of self-driving and are often described by researchers on a scale of 0-5. Level 0 is where all major systems are controlled by humans. Level 1 is where only certain systems such as cruise control or automatic braking may be controlled by the car one at a time. Level 2 is where the car offers at least two simultaneous automated functions such as acceleration and steering, but requires humans for safe operation. Level 3 is where the car can manage all safety-critical functions under certain conditions, but the driver is expected to take over when alerted. Level 4 is where the car is fully-autonomous in some driving scenarios but not all. Level 5 is where the car is completely capable of self-driving in every situation. Currently the Tesla brand produces level 2 autonomous cars which are basically a step ahead adaptive cruise control.


 Case Study: The Economical and Financial Consequences of EVs

This case study examines the growth of electric cars and their impact on the environment and the user. The long term goal is to have all of the light-duty vehicles that use an internal combustion engine be replaced by electric cars in Scotland. The idea is to analyze the impact on the environment and the financial effect on the user. The method is based on analyzing the most common electric and conventional vehicles to estimate the amount of additional electricity that would be needed to charge that expansion and running costs. The results show that approximately 4 gigawatt hours of additional electricity per year will be needed to support such growth in electricity demand. With the rise in electricity production, the amount of carbon emissions from the electrical grid is expected to increase slightly by 0.47 megatons of carbon dioxide per year. Given that the carbon dioxide generated by the light internal combustion vehicles at the moment is 3.6 megatons of CO2 per year, it is concluded that the total amount of greenhouse gases from the electricity grid will decrease by roughly 33.7% if all conventional cars in Scotland are replaced by electric cars. The initial cost of an electric car is higher than conventional diesel or gasoline cars, but over time the cost to power an electric vehicle is expected to be much cheaper. However, electric cars still have their downsides as they need a lot of time to be charged, and will consume significant energy for heating the interior and windscreens to prevent condensation in cold weather. This leads to an estimated reduction in range of approximately 28% in some situations.

7.6 Chapter Summary

Automobiles have changed the way we think about day-to-day transportation. The technology that makes up these machines is very vast and has come a long way since it was first invented. As time progressed, so did innovation and a completely new industry was born. The impact on society that automobiles have made has changed the way we think about our daily life. As technology advances, cars will become more efficient in many ways, and who knows what the typical automobile will look like at the end of this century.


Review Questions

1. How was the automobile one of the greatest inventions in human history?

A. People no longer had to rely on trains for transportation.

B. It allowed for people to look cool in front of their friends.

C. It gave people more personal freedom and created new industries.

D. It allowed humans to use the surplus of fossil fuels on the Earth.


2. Which of the following is NOT a main component of an automobile?

A. The engine.

B. The transmission.

C. The chassis.

D. The tires.


3. What is the difference between automobiles from Japan and the United States in the late 20th century?

A. Japanese cars had non-functional designs and American cars were fuel-efficient.

B. Japanese cars were fuel-efficient and American cars were “gas-guzzlers”.

C. American cars were more stylish than Japanese cars.

D. American cars out-sold the Japanese cars significantly.


4. What is the goal for the future of automobiles?

A. Reduce emissions and become autonomous.

B. Develop technology that allows the car to hover.

C. Make internal combustion engines more desirable than electric powertrains.

D. Make the majority of cars use hydrogen as fuel.



  1. C
  2. D
  3. B
  4. A

Food For Thought

  1. Are automobiles on the way to becoming completely electric and autonomous? Where do you see the car industry going in the next 100 years?
  2. How would someone from the 1500s react if they saw a modern-day car? Would they be able to wrap their head around the concept?


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