Automobiles, sometimes referred to as automobiles or cars, are self-propelled vehicles used for passenger transportation on land. They have four wheels and are powered by an internal combustion engine, which is fueled mostly by gasoline (petrol). The modern automotive industry is a very large sector of the manufacturing economy and one of the most important industries in the world.
The development of the automobile began several hundred years ago with inventions such as the steam engine, the battery electric car, and later the internal combustion gas engine – the technology that underlies all modern automobiles. Several scientists and inventors contributed to the early advancement of these motor vehicles: Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, Nikolaus Otto, and Emile Levassor were some of the earliest pioneers.
In the United States, the automobile revolutionized personal transportation. The nation’s vast land area and its sparse population encouraged demand for automobiles, while cheap raw materials and the tradition of American factory production made automobiles affordable for many Americans. The United States became the leading automotive manufacturing nation in the world during the first half of the twentieth century, and Henry Ford innovated mass-production techniques that would be the standard for the industry.
The automobile also opened up new opportunities for work and play for the average person, enabling him or her to travel long distances more quickly than was possible before the advent of the automobile. This freedom of movement created new services and leisure activities, such as motels, hotels, restaurants, amusement parks and other recreational facilities. It also accelerated the growth of suburbia as people moved from rural areas to city centers in search of employment and housing, requiring new highways and related infrastructure.
As a result of these changes, the modern automobile has come to be seen as an essential part of American life. In 1980, over 88 percent of households owned at least one automobile; by the end of the century this number had reached 95 percent. This dramatic shift has sparked a major debate, however, about its impact on the environment, traffic congestion and safety.
The word automobile comes from the Latin words auto- + mobile, meaning “self-moving.” Automobiles are a crucial part of our daily lives and we depend on them to transport ourselves to and from work, school and social events. The modern automobile is a very complex machine with many mechanical, electrical and aerodynamic systems. Its design depends to a great extent on its intended use. Automobiles designed for off-road driving, for example, must have durable, simple systems with high resistance to severe overloads and extreme operating conditions. Those designed for highway travel must offer greater passenger comfort options, optimized high-speed handling and vehicle stability, and advanced engine performance. The design of an automobile is a highly-specialized field, and research and development engineers and technicians are constantly working to improve its body, chassis, engines, drivetrains, control systems, and safety features. These improvements are essential to the continuing competitiveness of the industry.