Automobiles, also known as motor vehicles, are wheeled passenger vehicles that generate their own power for propulsion and have a seating capacity of one to seven people. Most automobiles operate primarily on roads and are powered by internal combustion engines, although electric cars and some hybrids are also available. There are about 590 million automobiles in operation worldwide as of 2002, with around 140 million in the United States. Automobiles have transformed modern life and influenced the development of cities, industries, and services. For example, automobiles have given people greater freedom of movement and increased their access to jobs, homes, and leisure activities. They have also prompted the growth of services like restaurants and hotels, as well as the development of new highways and other infrastructure. However, the automobile has also caused problems for the environment through pollution from exhaust and other sources, as well as traffic congestion.
Exactly who invented the automobile remains controversial, though the earliest accounts generally credit German inventor Karl Benz with developing a working prototype in 1885 or 1886. It was Benz who adapted an existing carriage with a four-cylinder, internal combustion engine, allowing it to travel much farther than previously possible. His invention paved the way for the mass production of automobiles in the early 1900s, and by 1920 American automakers General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler had emerged as the world’s biggest producers. Henry Ford innovated the assembly line technique, lowering the price of the Model T until it became affordable to middle-class Americans and allowed them to buy their own cars.
Today, there are many different kinds of automobiles ranging from sport utility vehicles to minivans. Most are powered by gasoline, but diesel and other alternative fuels are becoming more common. Some are designed for off-road use, while others are optimized for high-speed driving on limited-access roads. Whatever their intended uses, automobiles are complex systems, and they must be designed to balance many competing factors.
The history of the automobile has been a tale of great innovation, from the first steam and then gas powered carriages to the vast array of options that have come into play in recent decades. Throughout it all, one constant has been the desire to make these machines more comfortable and efficient for people who use them to travel long distances. This has led to ever more refined designs and sophisticated components, including air conditioning, navigation and communication systems, and a variety of safety features. Even so, the car’s basic functions remain largely unchanged. It still moves people and their belongings from one place to another, on a journey that would be impossible without it.