The modern automobile is a complex technical system employing subsystems with specific design functions. Some of these consist of thousands of component parts that have evolved from breakthroughs in existing technology or from new technologies such as electronic computers, high-strength plastics, and new alloys of steel and nonferrous metals. Some subsystems have come about as a result of factors such as air pollution, safety legislation, and competition between manufacturers throughout the world.
Passenger cars have emerged as the primary means of family transportation, with an estimated 1.4 billion in operation worldwide. About one-quarter of these are in the United States, where more than three trillion miles (almost five trillion kilometres) are traveled each year. In recent years, Americans have been offered hundreds of different models, about half of them from foreign manufacturers. To capitalize on their proprietary technological advances, manufacturers introduce new designs ever more frequently. With some 70 million new units built each year worldwide, manufacturers have been able to split the market into many very small segments that nonetheless remain profitable.
New technical developments are recognized to be the key to successful competition. Research and development engineers and scientists have been employed by all automobile manufacturers and suppliers to improve the body, chassis, engine, drivetrain, control systems, safety systems, and emission-control systems.
These outstanding technical advancements are not made without economic consequences. According to a study by Ward’s Communications Incorporated, the average cost for a new American car increased $4,700 (in terms of the value of the dollar in 2000) between 1980 and 2001 because of mandated safety and emission-control performance requirements (such as the addition of air bags and catalytic converters). New requirements continued to be implemented in subsequent years. The addition of computer technology was another factor driving up car prices, which increased by 29 percent between 2009 and 2019. This is in addition to the consumer costs associated with engineering improvements in fuel economy, which may be offset by reduced fuel purchases.
Vehicle design depends to a large extent on its intended use. Automobiles for off-road use must be durable, simple systems with high resistance to severe overloads and extremes in operating conditions. Conversely, products that are intended for high-speed, limited-access road systems require more passenger comfort options, increased engine performance, and optimized high-speed handling and vehicle stability. Stability depends principally on the distribution of weight between the front and rear wheels, the height of the centre of gravity and its position relative to the aerodynamic centre of pressure of the vehicle, suspension characteristics, and the selection of which wheels are used for propulsion. Weight distribution depends principally on the location and size of the engine. The common practice of front-mounted engines exploits the stability that is more readily achieved with this layout. The development of aluminum engines and new manufacturing processes has, however, made it possible to locate the engine at the rear without necessarily compromising stability.
Automotive body designs are frequently categorized according to the number of doors, the arrangement of seats, and the roof structure. Automobile roofs are conventionally supported by pillars on each side of the body. Convertible models with retractable fabric tops rely on the pillar at the side of the windshield for upper body strength, as convertible mechanisms and glass areas are essentially nonstructural. Glass areas have been increased for improved visibility and for aesthetic reasons.
The high cost of new factory tools makes it impractical for manufacturers to produce totally new designs every year. Completely new designs usually have been programmed on three- to six-year cycles with generally minor refinements appearing during the cycle. In the past, as many as four years of planning and new tool purchasing were needed for a completely new design. Computer-aided design (CAD), testing by use of computer simulations, and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) techniques may now be used to reduce this time requirement by 50 percent or more. See machine tool: Computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM).
Automotive bodies are generally formed out of sheet steel. The steel is alloyed with various elements to improve its ability to be formed into deeper depressions without wrinkling or tearing in manufacturing presses. Steel is used because of its general availability, low cost, and good workability. For certain applications, however, other materials, such as aluminum, fibreglass, and carbon-fibre reinforced plastic, are used because of their special properties. Polyamide, polyester, polystyrene, polypropylene, and ethylene plastics have been formulated for greater toughness, dent resistance, and resistance to brittle deformation. These materials are used for body panels. Tooling for plastic components generally costs less and requires less time to develop than that for steel components and therefore may be changed by designers at a lower cost.
To protect bodies from corrosive elements and to maintain their strength and appearance, special priming and painting processes are used. Bodies are first dipped in cleaning baths to remove oil and other foreign matter. They then go through a succession of dip and spray cycles. Enamel and acrylic lacquer are both in common use. Electrodeposition of the sprayed paint, a process in which the paint spray is given an electrostatic charge and then attracted to the surface by a high voltage, helps assure that an even coat is applied and that hard-to-reach areas are covered. Ovens with conveyor lines are used to speed the drying process in the factory. Galvanized steel with a protective zinc coating and corrosion-resistant stainless steel are used in body areas that are more likely to corrode.