An automobile is a wheeled passenger vehicle that carries its own motor. Different types of automobiles include cars, buses, trucks, and vans. Some include motorcycles in the category, but cars are the most typical automobiles. The term automobile is derived from Greek auto (“self”) and Latin mobilis (“movable”), referring to the fact that it “moves by itself”. Earlier terms for automobile include motorwagen, and horseless carriage. Although the term “car” is presumed to be derived through the shortening of the term “carriage”, the word has its origin before 1300 A.D. in English as, “carr”—derived from similar words in French and much earlier Greek words—for a vehicle that moves, especially on wheels, that was applied to chariots, small carts, and later to carriages that carried more people and larger loads. As of 2005 there were 600 million cars worldwide (93 cars per 1,000 persons).

The automobile was hailed as an environmental improvement over horses when it was first introduced in the 1880s. Before its introduction, in New York City alone, more than 1,800 tons of manure had to be removed from the streets daily, although the manure was used as natural fertilizer for crops and to build top soil. In 2006, the automobile is recognized as one of the primary sources of world-wide air pollution and a cause of substantial noise pollution and adverse health effects.

Automobile History

Benz Patent Motorwagen

Replica of the Benz Patent Motorwagen built in 1885.

The automobile powered by the Otto gasoline engine was invented in Germany by Karl Benz in 1885. Benz was granted a patent dated 29 January 1886 in Mannheim for that automobile. Even though Benz is credited with the invention of the modern automobile, several other German engineers worked on building automobiles at the same time. In 1886, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in Stuttgart patented the first motor bike, built and tested in 1885, and in 1886 they built a converted horse-drawn stagecoach. In 1870, German-Austrian inventor Siegfried Marcus assembled a motorized handcart, though Marcus’s vehicle didn’t go beyond the experimental stage.

Production of Automobiles Begins

The internal-combustion-engine automobile really can be said to have begun in Germany with Karl Benz in 1885-1886, and Gottlieb Daimler between 1886-1889, for their vehicles were successful, they went into series-production (albeit in modified form), and they inspired others.

Karl Benz began to work on new engine patents in 1878. First, he concentrated all his efforts on creating a reliable two-stroke gas engine, based on Nikolaus Otto’s design of the four-stroke engine. A patent on the design by Otto had been declared void. Karl Benz finished his engine on New Year’s Eve and was granted a patent for it in 1879. Karl Benz built his first three-wheeled automobile in 1885 and it was granted a patent in Mannheim, dated January of 1886. This was the first automobile designed and built as such, rather than a converted carriage, boat, or cart. Among other items Karl Benz invented for the automobile are the carburetor, the speed regulation system known also as an accelerator, ignition using sparks from a battery, the spark plug, the clutch, the gear shift, and the water radiator. He built improved versions in 1886 and 1887 and—went into production in 1888—the world’s first automobile put into production. His wife, Bertha, made significant suggestions for innovation that he included in that model. Approximately twenty-five were built before 1893, when his first four-wheeler was introduced. They were powered with four-stroke engines of his own design. Emile Roger of France, already producing Benz engines under license, now added the Benz automobile to his line of products. Because France was more open to the early automobiles, in general, more were built and sold in France through Roger, than Benz sold initially from his own factory in Germany.

Gottlieb Daimler, in 1886, fitted a horse carriage with his four-stroke engine in Stuttgart. In 1889, he built two vehicles from scratch as automobiles, with several innovations. From 1890 to 1895 about thirty vehicles were built by Daimler and his innovative assistant, Wilhelm Maybach, either at the Daimler works or in the Hotel Hermann, where they set up shop after having a falling out with their backers. These two Germans, Benz and Daimler, seem to have been unaware of the early work of each other and worked independently. Daimler died in 1900. During the First World War, Benz suggested a co-operative effort between the companies the two founded, but it was not until 1926 that the companies united under the name of Daimler-Benz with a commitment to remain together under that name until the year 2000.

In 1890, Emile Levassor and Armand Peugeot of France began series-producing vehicles with Daimler engines, and so laid the foundation of the motor industry in France. They were inspired by Daimler’s Stahlradwagen of 1889, which was exhibited in Paris in 1889.

The first American automobile with gasoline-powered internal combustion engines supposedly was designed in 1877 by George Baldwin Selden of Rochester, New York, who applied for a patent on an automobile in 1879. Selden didn’t build a single automobile until 1905, when he was forced to do so, due to a lawsuit threatening the legality of his patent because the subject had never been built. Construction is required to demonstrate the feasibility of the design and validate the patent, otherwise the patent may be voided. After building the 1877 design in 1905, Selden received his patent and later sued the Ford Motor Company for infringing upon his patent. Henry Ford was notorious for opposing the American patent system and Selden’s case against Ford went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Ford, and anyone else, was free to build automobiles without paying royalties to Selden, since automobile technology had improved so significantly since the design of Selden’s patent, that no one was building according to his early designs.

Meanwhile, notable advances in steam power evolved in Birmingham, England by the Lunar Society. It was here that the term horsepower was first used. It also was in Birmingham that the first British four-wheel petrol-driven automobiles were built in 1895 by Frederick William Lanchester. Lanchester also patented the disc brake in that city.

Automobile Safety

Automobile accidents are almost as old as automobiles themselves. Joseph Cugnot crashed his steam-powered “Fardier” against a wall in 1771. One of the earliest recorded automobile fatalities was Mary Ward, on 1869-08-31 in Parsonstown, Ireland, an early victim in the United States was Henry Bliss on 1899-09-13 in New York City, NY.

Cars have two basic safety problems: They have human drivers who make mistakes, and the wheels lose traction near a half gravity of deceleration. Automated control has been seriously proposed and successfully prototyped. Shoulder-belted passengers could tolerate a 32G emergency stop (reducing the safe intervehicle gap 64-fold) if high-speed roads incorporated a steel rail for emergency braking. Both safety modifications of the roadway are thought to be too expensive by most funding authorities, although these modifications could dramatically increase the number of vehicles that could safely use a high-speed highway.

Early safety research focused on increasing the reliability of brakes and reducing the flammability of fuel systems. For example, modern engine compartments are open at the bottom so that fuel vapors, which are heavier than air, vent to the open air. Brakes are hydraulic so that failures are slow leaks, rather than abrupt cable breaks. Systematic research on crash safety started in 1958 at Ford Motor Company. Since then, most research has focused on absorbing external crash energy with crushable panels and reducing the motion of human bodies in the passenger compartment.

There are standard tests for safety in new automobiles, like the EuroNCAP and the US NCAP tests. There are also tests run by organizations backed by the insurance industry such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Despite technological advances, there is still significant loss of life from car accidents: About 40,000 people die every year in the U.S., with similar figures in Europe. This figure increases annually in step with rising population and increasing travel if no measures are taken, but the rate per capita and per mile travelled decreases steadily. The death toll is expected to nearly double worldwide by 2020. A much higher number of accidents result in injury or permanent disability. The highest accident figures are reported in China and India. The European Union has a rigid program to cut the death toll in the EU in half by 2010 and member states have started implementing measures.

Future of the Car

Toyota FCHV

Toyota FCHV (Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle). A fuel cell hybrid car which runs from the hydrogen which Toyota developed, 2005.

In order to limit deaths, there has been a push for self-driving automobiles. There have been many notable efforts funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), including the many efforts by the NavLabgroup at Carnegie Mellon University. Recent efforts include the highly publicized DARPA Grand Challenge race.

A current invention is ESP by Bosch that is claimed to reduce deaths by about 30% and is recommended by many lawmakers and carmakers to be a standard feature in all cars sold in the EU. ESP recognizes dangerous situations and corrects the drivers input for a short moment to stabilize the car.

Relatively high transportation fuel prices do not completely stop car usage but makes it significantly more expensive. One environmental benefit of high fuel prices is that it incentivises the production of more efficient (and hence less polluting) car engines and designs and the development of alternative fuels. In the beginning of 2006, 1 liter of gas costs approximately $1.60 in Germany and other European countries, and one U.S. gallon of gas costs nearly $3.00. With fuel prices at these levels there is a strong incentive for consumers to purchase lighter, smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Nevertheless, individual mobility is highly prized in modern societies so the demand for automobiles is inelastic. Alternative individual modes of transport, such as Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), could make the automobile obsolete if they prove to be cheaper and more energy efficient.

Hydrogen cars, driven either by a combination of fuel cells and an electric motor, or alternatively, a conventional combustion engine, are widely mooted to replace fossil fuel powered cars in a few decades. Some obstacles to a mass market of hydrogen cars include: the cost of hydrogen production by electrolysis, which is inefficient and requires an inexpensive source of electrical energy to be economical, the difficulty of storing hydrogen either in its gaseous or liquid (cryogenic) form, and the lack of a hydrogen transport infrastructure such as pipelines and filling stations. Hydrogen has a much higher energy density than gasoline or diesel. It is thought to become cheaper with mass production, but because its production is overall energy inefficient and requires other sources of energy, including fossil, it is unlikely to be a cheaper fuel than gasoline or diesel today. Also, its combustion produces only water vapour (a greenhouse gas) and virtually no local pollutants such as NOx, SOx, benzene and soot. BMW’s engineering team promises a high horsepower hydrogen fuel engine in it’s 7-series sedan before the next generation of the car makes its debut.

The electric car in general appears to be a way forward in principle; electric motors are far more efficient than internal combustion engines and have a much greater power to weight ratio. They also operate efficiently across the full speed range of the vehicle and develop a lot of torque at zero speed, so are ideal for cars. A complex drivetrain and transmission would not be needed. However, despite this the electric car is held back by battery technology – so far a cell with comparable energy density to a tank of liquid fuel is a long way off, and there is no infrastructure in place to support it. A more practical approach may be to use a smaller internal combustion (IC) engine to drive a generator- this approach can be much more efficient since the IC engine can be run at a single speed, use cheaper fuel such as diesel, and drop the heavy, power wasting drivetrain. Such an approach has worked very well for railway locomotives, but so far has not been scaled down for car use.

Recently the automobile industry has determined that the biggest potential growth market (in terms of both revenue and profit), is software. Cars are now equipped with a stunning array of software; from voice recognition and vehicle navigation systems, vehicle tracking system like ESITrack to in-vehicle distributed entertainment systems (DVD/Games), to telematics systems such as GMs Onstar not to mention the control subsystems. Software now accounts for 35% of a cars value, and this percentage is only going to get larger. The theory behind this is that the mechanical systems of automobiles are now essentially a commodity, and the real product differentiation occurs in the software systems. Many cars are equipped with full blown 32bit real-time memory protected operating systems such as QNX.

A new invention by Carmelo Scuderi, the Scuderi Split Cycle Engine claims to improve the efficiency of an engine from 33.2% to 42.6%. In addition, toxic emissions are claimed to be reduced by as much as 80%.

Hypothetical driverless cars and flying cars have been proposed for decades, but for now the costs would outweigh the benefits (traffic overhaul and control, fuel and operating costs, the development of widely available driverless and flying cars itself, and the technology required for such vehicles which is currently out of reach). Thus driverless and especially flying cars still are an idea widely associated with science fiction.