Automobiles are self-propelled motor vehicles used for transportation on land. They usually have four wheels and an internal combustion engine fueled most often by gasoline, a liquid petroleum product. The automobile is a universal modern technology and one of the world’s largest industries. Cars are usually manufactured by a number of different companies and sold in large quantities to individuals, as well as to corporate, government, and retail customers. They are generally affixed with various comfort, convenience, safety, and entertainment features.

The first automobiles were steam or electric powered and were developed in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In 1886 German inventor Karl Benz designed and patented his Benz Patent-Motorwagen. Benz’s design was a precursor to the modern automobile and introduced many of the principles that would later be used in the mass production of cars by Ford and others in the 20th century.

Following World War II, automobile production accelerated in Europe and Japan as automakers focused on producing vehicles for the military. These developments helped to propel the automobile into the mainstream of society. Today there are an estimated 1.4 billion passenger cars in operation worldwide, and most American families own one.

As the automobile became more widely used, it created new social and psychological relationships for Americans. Families took road trips and rediscovered pristine landscapes. The automobile enabled urban dwellers to shop in rural areas and allowed rural residents to return to their farms. The car also changed teen and dating relationships by making it easier for couples to spend time together outside of the home. In addition, driving freedom opened up new employment opportunities and helped create suburban communities that have since become a cultural norm.

By the 1970s, engineering was subordinated to nonfunctional styling at the expense of economy and quality. The question of whether the higher unit profits that Detroit made on gas-guzzling “road cruisers” was worth the cost of increased air pollution, deteriorating highway infrastructure, and draining world oil reserves began to be asked. These concerns led to the imposition of federal standards on automotive safety, emission of pollutants, and energy consumption, as well as the penetration of world markets first by the German Volkswagen “Bug” (a modern model T) and then by Japanese fuel-efficient, functionally designed, and well-built small cars.

The automobile has a unique and invaluable role in society. It provides the mobility to reach places that cannot be reached by train or bus, and it gives people the freedom to go where they want, when they want, without being dependent on someone else’s schedule. An automobile can also help in times of crisis by enabling people to respond quickly and efficiently to an emergency situation. In short, the automobile is a truly indispensable part of contemporary life and will continue to be so in the future as it continues to evolve into the Age of Electronics.