Automotive Terms Glossary for Drivers

Are you looking to expand your driving knowledge before getting behind the wheel? Read on to learn about the history of automobiles in America, the many terms you'll need to know as a driver, and also key concepts that can help you better understand driving and vehicle ownership. 

The History and Development of the Automobile

America is a nation on wheels, and you're about to join the crowd. But how did automobiles get started? The French engineer Nicolas Joseph Cugnot built the first self-propelled vehicle in Paris in 1789: a heavy, three-wheeled, steam-powered carriage with a boiler that projected in the front.

Another German engineer, Gottlieb Daimler, built an improved internal combustion engine around 1885.

Then, the Stanley brothers of Massachusetts (the most well-known American manufacturers of steam-driven autos) produced their Stanley Steamers from 1897 until after World War I.

In 1903, Henry Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company and proclaimed, "I will build a car for the great multitude." In October 1908, he did just that, offering the Model T for $950. Over nineteen years of production, the Model T's lowest price was $280. It turned out that nearly 15,500,000 Model Ts were sold in the United States alone. It heralded the beginning of the Motor Age where the personal vehicle evolved from a luxury item for the well-to-do, to an essential mode of transportation for the ordinary man.

General Motors, Ford's main competitor, became the world's largest automobile manufacturer in the 1920s. U.S. leadership of the field continued until the 1970s when American manufacturers were challenged by the growing sales of Japanese and German cars.

As of 2020, Volkswagen from Germany is the largest car manufacturer, followed by Toyota from Japan, Daimler from Germany, Ford from the United States, and Honda from Japan.

Common Car Terms

Now that you have some background, here's a look at some of the common terms you should know before hitting the road. Modern vehicles are made up of many different parts. Learning how these parts work together may seem challenging. However, maintaining and operating your car economically and safely is not as difficult as you think.


The clutch pedal is only found in cars with a manual transmission, and it's located on the floor to the left of the brake pedal. When pressed, it disengages the clutch which eliminates the transmission of power from the engine to the transmission. When released, it applies power back through to the transmission. Being so, you use the clutch when shifting up or down from one gear to the next. The clutch must be operated by your left foot with your heel resting on the ground.


The gearshift is the mechanism that engages or disengages gears in your transmission. It's typically located either on the steering column or on the console between the front seats. In an automatic vehicle, you’ll typically see a shifting knob along with options for P, R, N, D, 3, 2, and L. These enable you to decide whether you want to park, back up, stay neutral, or drive forward. In cars with a manual transmission, the gearshift is actually a stick shift. You must learn to synchronize shifting gears and pushing the clutch pedal.

Hazard Lights

Hazard lights, or flashers, are typically the amber-colored front and tail lights (four total) that flash on and off intermittently to warn other drivers of an emergency. You can turn them on by pushing the button in your car with a red triangle. You may want to do so if, for example, your car breaks down, you’re driving in a funeral procession, you get into a car accident, or you’re changing a tire. If you can't find the hazard button, check your car owner's manual.


The horn in a motor vehicle is a sound-making device that's typically installed into the steering wheel. Its purpose is to allow drivers to get the attention of others for the safety and convenience of all. For example, it may be used to call attention to a hazard or to remind someone it’s their turn to go if they're stopped at a green light. Make sure your horn is fully functioning and can be heard at a distance of 100-200 ft. However, do not use your horn excessively, as it can be distracting. Only use it to communicate with other drivers when necessary.


Your car’s ignition is a mechanism that lights fuel to start the engine (aka turn your car on) when you insert your key. It’s typically found on the right side of the steering column. Ignitions usually have three positions that serve different purposes. You turn your key clockwise to go to a higher position and counter-clockwise to deactivate it. The first position is the off position when your car is in park. The second position causes the dashboard instruments to activate. The final position causes your engine to start.


Your car is equipped with both rearview and side-view mirrors that are important as they enable you to see what’s going on around you. The rearview mirror is located right in front of the top and center of your windshield. It’s shaped like a rectangle and allows you to see what is happening behind you. The side-view mirrors are located on the exterior sides of your vehicle and allow you to view periphery traffic. It’s important that you always make sure that all of your mirrors are properly adjusted before you begin driving.

Steering Wheel

Directly in front of the driver’s seat is a wheel that the driver can turn to steer the vehicle. Turning the steering wheel transmits force, which turns the tires to determine the direction of travel.

Most vehicles today have power steering, which makes turning the wheel relatively easy. If you have power steering and find it necessary to exert a lot of physical force to turn your wheel or hear a loud sound when turning, it's time to see the mechanic. 

Traction Control Systems

Traction control systems have been added to many vehicles to keep the traction between all four tires when the road conditions are dangerous — like on a snowy winter day. They work with the help of wheel-speed sensors. When one wheel begins to spin faster than the others, the brake to that wheel is automatically pumped to slow it down and reduce the slipping.

Gravity's Impacts on Driving

On Earth, all things are attracted to the planet’s center — including you and your car! Being so, when driving, gravity will play a role in your experience. 

As you start to drive from a level, horizontal road to one with an incline, you will notice that gravity is pulling your car down, which means you need to apply more gas to maintain the same speed. Conversely, when you begin to go downhill, gravity will be working with you causing your car to speed up so you may need to apply the brakes or shift to a lower gear. 

It’s important to think about gravity when you park on a hill, too. Gravity is again going to be trying to pull your car down. Being so, you should always use your parking brake, position your front wheels so you will roll away from traffic in the case that your brakes fail, and leave your car in low gear.

Inertia's Impacts on Driving

Inertia is a phenomenon where physical objects tend to maintain a state of rest or uniform motion, resisting changes in velocity, and it will affect you while behind the wheel. 

For example, if you are driving at 35 miles per hour and slam on your breaks, your body will tend to keep moving forward, causing your weight to be flung forward. Then, if you take off fast, your body will tend to stay at rest for a moment, pushing you back into your seat. 

Inertia also keeps your vehicle moving until some force slows it down or stops it. This force can be your own action of applying a brake, the conditions of the road, an object on the road like a fallen tree, or if the driver isn't paying enough attention, even another vehicle.

Car Safety Equipment

Modern vehicles are often equipped with various types of safety equipment such as seat belts, airbags, shatter-resistant glass, traction control, and anti-lock brakes (ABS), which can protect passengers in case of collisions. Nowadays, they even have sensors to alert you if you're going to hit something, and AI might even pump the brakes for you. While some features are optional, the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has mandated the following over the years:

  • Dual front airbags in 1995

  • Passive restraint systems (often motorized seat belts) in 1989

  • Handles inside of trunks in 2001

  • Tire pressure monitor in 2007

  • Electronic Stability Control (ESC) in 2012


Airbags are a safety feature required in modern-day cars to provide vehicle occupants extra protection in a collision. They provide a protective cushion between those riding in the front seats and the steering wheel, dashboard, and windshield. Note that seat belts and airbags are designed to work together, and injuries may occur if seat belts are not used in air-bag-equipped vehicles.

Airbags are stored in the steering wheel or dashboard and inflate during a serious collision, usually a front collision that occurs at over 10 mph. To do its important job, an airbag comes out of the dashboard at up to 200 mph — faster than the blink of an eye. It takes about 10 inches of space to inflate and can hurt those who are too close to it so it's important to ride in the proper upright position.

Airbag related injuries can be prevented by following these safety tips:

  • Driver and front-seat passengers should be moved as far back as practical, and at least 10 inches from the airbag.

  • Everyone should wear both lap AND shoulder belts and remove any excess slack in the belt.

  • Do not ride with your feet on the dash.

  • Children 12 and under should ride buckled up in the rear seat.

Child Safety Seats

Child safety seats, also known as car seats, child restraint systems, booster seats, or baby seats, are seats purchased and installed by car owners to protect children during vehicle collisions. According to the CDC, using a car seat reduces a child's risk for injury in crashes by 71-82% when compared with the use of seat belts alone. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends keeping children in the back seat with the proper car seat until age 12, or until they reach the maximum height and weight limit for a booster seat. Here's a look at the recommended car seats based on a child's age:

  1. Install rear-facing seats for infants aged 0 to 1-year-old. Keep them in the rear-facing seat until they reach the maximum height or weight limit for the car seat. 

  2. Install forwarding-facing seats for toddlers and children from 1 to 4+ years old. Again, keep them in the car seat until they reach the maximum height or weight limit. 

  3. Install booster chairs for children from age 4 up to 8+ years old. Keep them in a booster until they exceed the height or weight maximum. 

  4. Transition into seat belts as weight and height allow between ages 8 and 12. 

Supplemental Occupant Restraint Systems

Over the last few decades, vehicle manufacturers have incorporated energy-absorbing designs into their vehicles to make them safer. And when restraint systems go beyond the seatbelt, they are called supplemental occupant restraint systems. Some examples of these include: 

  • Front ends and trunks that crush on impact and steel beams inside the doors to protect occupants in side impacts; many bumpers are now designed to absorb low impact (under 5 mph) without damage.

  • A plastic sheet between layers of windshield glass helps to protect occupants from flying broken glass.

  • Padded areas on the dash and on top of the front seats to lessen the potential of head injuries.

  • Energy-absorbing steering wheels and columns to protect the driver.

  • Front-impact airbags — some new cars also carry side-impact airbags.

Purchasing a Vehicle

For most drivers, the time will eventually come to buy their own vehicle. When it does, you'll have to make a choice between buying a new or used car. Both have pros and cons that should be considered before making a decision. 

Buying New

The advantages of buying a new car are that you know it has no prior problems and will receive a warranty. The warranty specifies a period of time in which the dealership will pay for repairs, if necessary. However, the major con is that the car will lose a significant percentage of its value as soon as you drive it off the lot. Being so, it's important to minimize that loss by doing your homework. Research and compare the manufacturer's list price to the sticker price, which may include additional charges and fees. 

Buying Used

As for the used car option, you'll skip the huge depreciation drop you'd get with a new car. However, you also often forgo having a warranty and will need to be very scrupulous when investigating potential vehicles as they could have a myriad of hidden issues. To reduce your risk, you can buy a certified pre-owned vehicle from a dealer which comes with a warranty. On the other hand, you could hire a mechanic to check out the vehicles you are considering for any potential problems. 

Checking Your Car's Condition

Safe driving starts with your vehicle, and it's your responsibility to ensure it's safe before taking off. Check your vehicle owner's manual for the routine maintenance steps you should perform. Further, choose a qualified mechanic and make an appointment with him or her if you notice any difference or change in your vehicle's performance. Here are a few of the key things you should monitor on a regular basis and some warning signs to watch out for:

  • Braking system: Your brakes help to stop your vehicle, so it's very dangerous if they are not working properly. If you feel your car pull to one side when you stop, hear an unusual noise when braking, or if the brake pedal goes further and further without slowing down the car down as easily, have a mechanic check your brakes.

  • Tires: Your tires are key to safety on the road, so it's important they have adequate tread and the right amount of tire pressure. Signs of trouble are cuts or cracks in the sidewalls, uneven tread wear, excessive vibrations, thumping sounds, bulges, and excessively worn-down tread. 

  • Suspension system: If your vehicle bounces a lot after a bump or is hard to control, you may need new shocks or other suspension parts. See a mechanic.

  • Windshield: Damaged windshield glass can break easily in a minor collision or if something hits it. Being so, have your windshield replaced if it's cracked. Also, ensure your windshield wipers are in good working order. 

  • Engine: Your engine must be in good condition. Follow the procedures given in your car owner's manual for maintenance. It's also important that you keep an eye on the engine temperature gauge in your car to avoid overheating. It should always be near the middle, right between hot and cold. 

  • Oil: Check your engine oil on a regular basis, at least once a month. Keep an eye on the oil indicator gauge/light while driving. If it's activated, stop immediately. This is a warning that the engine's oil level is down.

  • Radiator Coolant: Check the radiator coolant level, especially before a long trip. If the level is down, add water. Otherwise, it could cause overheating and damage to the engine.

  • Transmission Fluid: Transmission oil needs to be replaced after 25,000-35,000 miles of driving. Check your owner's manual for your car's guidelines and have a mechanic check the transmission if the oil is dark in color.

  • Brake Fluid: Brake fluid also needs to be replaced at least once a year.

By staying on top of your vehicle's maintenance, you can get behind the wheel with confidence that you'll make it to your destination safely. Further, you'll extend the life of your vehicle and can help to hold its value. It's also helpful if you select a safe, long-lasting car from the outset. 

Obtaining a Vehicle Title

A vehicle’s title is a certificate that proves ownership of the vehicle. It also shows the vehicle make, model, and Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). When you buy a vehicle, you need to apply for a title and register the car with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). They will then give you a license plate, registration document, and license plate tag. 

Eco-friendly Driving

Nowadays, there is growing concern about the environment, and transportation is said to be responsible for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions. New laws on the global, national, and state-level aim to keep our environment safe for us and future generations. However, there’s much that can be done by individuals, too. 

Here are some ways you can reduce the environmental impact of your driving:

  • Switch to a hybrid or fully electric vehicle.

  • If you drive a gas-powered vehicle, limit driving by using public transit, carpooling, walking, or biking. 

  • Remove extra weight from your vehicle.

  • Limit AC use.

  • Drive the speed limit.

  • Perform regular maintenance to boost gas mileage.

  • Combine your errands into one trip and park centrally, walking as much as possible.

  • Choose your route before you leave to avoid traffic jams.

  • Reduce time driving, especially during peak traffic periods or hot days.

  • Limit engine idling time to not more than 30 seconds.

  • Accelerate gradually, maintain the speed limit, and use cruise control on the highway.

  • Avoid waiting in long drive-through lines.

  • Use energy-conserving grades of motor oil.

  • Change air and oil filters regularly.

  • Keep tires properly inflated and aligned.

  • Repair all vehicle leaks.

  • Make an appointment with a repair tech if the "Check Engine" light is illuminated.

  • Fill gas tank during cooler evening hours to reduce evaporation.

  • Avoid spilling gas and don't "top off" the tank.

  • Replace the gas tank cap tightly.

All of these steps can help you to reduce your carbon footprint. 

Recycling Vehicle Waste Products

Lastly, when you own vehicles, you will periodically have waste products that need to be recycled such as batteries and tires, along with used motor oil, oil filters, and antifreeze. Here's a quick guide on how to properly recycle these items:

  • Used motor oil, antifreeze, and oil filters: Many oil change or automotive service centers will recycle these items as well as some Autozone locations and local recycling centers. It's best to call ahead to check. 

  • Batteries: Spent (dead) automotive batteries can be returned to sellers. These old lead-acid batteries must not be discarded in landfills.

  • Tires: When tires are improperly stockpiled or illegally dumped, they trap rainwater and become breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes and rodents. Another problem with tire storage piles is that they pose a major fire hazard and are extremely difficult to extinguish. Burning tires release toxic gases into the air and leave behind a hazardous oily residue that pollutes streams and groundwater. Instead, old tires can be taken to places such as a general or specialized recycling facility, a retailer, or a tire shop (for a fee). Find a location near you. 

Learn More With's Online Driver's Ed Courses

Now you know many of the basics about driving and vehicle ownership. However, in many cases, you'll need to complete a driver's ed course before getting your license, especially if you're a teen. At, we make it easy by providing 100% online courses. No need to go to a classroom or make room in your schedule. Instead, sign up with us and complete the courses when it works best for you. 

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