November 24, 2012 9:00 am

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People in the 1800s didn’t know what to think about a new invention called the automobile. No one was sure it would catch on. In those days, people often traveled in carriages pulled by horses. So when the first automobiles appeared, people nicknamed them “horseless carriages.”
The first automobiles looked a lot like horse carriages. That was the style people knew. But the automobile soon took on a look that was all its own. The modern automobile has a hood and fenders. It has a roof, sides, and four wheels. It has seats where the driver and passengers sit. Modern automobiles are commonly called cars or autos.
Few machines are as important as cars. You can ride to school in one. Adults can drive one to work. You can drive in a car to shopping malls. You can take long vacations traveling in an automobile.
The typical passenger car can carry up to six people. Larger vehicles called minivans are like big cars. They can usually carry up to eight people. Pickups or trucks are built to carry cargo.
Sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) are made for driving in all types of conditions, including mud or snow. Sports cars are built for power and good road handling. Many sports cars have room for just two passengers.
Racing cars are specially designed to compete on tracks and courses. Most racing cars are built to be lightweight and very fast. Because they are made for racing, they usually are not suited for driving on public streets.
A car gets power from its engine. Most auto engines burn gasoline. Gasoline goes through fuel lines from a gas tank to the engine.
When it burns fuel, the engine makes exhaust gases. These gases go out through pipes called the exhaust system.
Moving parts hooked up to the engine are called the drivetrain. The drivetrain carries mechanical energy from the engine to the wheels. The turning wheels make an automobile go.
Springs and shock absorbers give passengers a smoother ride on bumpy roads. Electrical parts make the headlights, turn signals, horn, radio, and windshield wipers work. The electrical parts also help start the car. Brake parts rub against the wheels to slow the car down. Seat belts and air bags help protect you in an accident.
People don’t just jump into cars and start driving. First, they must get their learner’s permit. Local auto bureaus can tell you how. Driver-education classes teach people how to drive a car. Students learn how a car works and the rules of safe driving.
To start a car, you sit in the driver’s seat. Turning a key in the ignition starts the engine. Moving the car’s gearshift connects the engine to the drivetrain. Pressing the gas pedal on the floor sends fuel to the engine. The harder you press, the faster the car goes.
To make the car turn left or right, you turn the steering wheel in the direction you want to go. To make the car move forward or backward, you use the gearshift.
What about stopping? Press your foot down on the brake pedal. The brakes will press against the wheels, making them slow down and then stop turning.
The first cars were built in the 1700s. They were powered by steam engines. In England, steam-powered cars weren’t allowed on the roads. They were run like trains on private railroad tracks!
Auto racing became popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some early racing cars had steam engines. These included the American-made Stanley Steamer. In 1906, a Stanley Steamer hit a speed of more than 121 miles per hour (195 kilometers per hour), setting a new land speed record.
Other cars made at the time ran on electricity from batteries. People liked them because they were quiet and less likely to scare horses and people. Still other cars had gasoline engines. The first gasoline-powered cars were loud, slow, and unreliable. But over time, the cars were improved, and more people wanted to drive them.
In the United States, a businessman named Henry Ford started the Ford Motor Company in 1903. His company made two famous kinds of cars: the Model A and the Model T.
Ford invented the factory assembly line for making cars. Workers in one place along the assembly line worked on just one part of the car. Other workers, in another area of the assembly line, worked on another part of the car.
Automobiles made this way were not very expensive. Ordinary people could afford them. The Model T became one of the biggest-selling automobiles of all time. Henry Ford sold more than 15 million Model T cars before his company stopped making them in 1927.
Modern cars are much better than earlier models. They are easier to drive and have advanced safety features such as air bags. Engines are more efficient and powerful. Cars are quieter and more comfortable inside.
Today, cars are more popular than ever. They are the main form of transportation for many people in the United States and Canada. Many people own more than one car.
The exhaust gases that come from burning gasoline can pollute the air. These gases contain chemicals that cause a smoky pollution called smog. The worst smog forms in cities. Exhaust gases also contain a gas called carbon dioxide. Scientists think carbon dioxide pollution is making Earth’s climate warmer.
Scientists and engineers are working to reduce pollution from cars. They have made cars that burn less gasoline. They have designed exhaust systems that give off less pollution. They have also developed efficient hybrid cars.
Many people believe hybrid cars could be a big help in reducing pollution. Hybrid cars are automobiles that run partly on gasoline and partly on some other fuel. Most hybrid cars use electricity from batteries. Scientists are also experimenting with hybrids that run on energy from sunlight and other sources.
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