Automobiles are vehicles designed for passenger transportation on land and propelled mainly by an internal combustion engine using a volatile fuel. Known by many names, including automobiles, motor cars, and car-like vehicles, they are a fundamental modern technology.

The first practical automobile was invented in 1886, when Carl Benz of Germany patented his Benz Patent-Motorwagen. The automobile revolutionized everyday life as it expanded personal freedom and spawned new industries that produced automobile parts, provided roads for transporting them, and delivered services like gas stations.

In the United States, which dominated automobile production through much of the 20th century, Henry Ford introduced industrial manufacturing methods and mass-production techniques. His assembly line allowed his Model T to be built at a price lower than the average annual wage. Once oil was discovered in Texas and gasoline became affordable, sales of gas-powered cars soared.

Automakers around the world now produce a combined total of more than 73 million automobiles each year. Passenger cars are the most popular form of automobile, with some 1.4 billion in use worldwide and three trillion miles driven each year on average. The global automotive industry is highly competitive and technologically advanced. Research and development engineers continuously seek to improve automobile performance, handling, ride comfort, fuel economy, and safety.

The automobile is a complex technical system consisting of several subsystems that must work together in harmony. These include mechanical, electrical, and aerodynamic components, as well as computer controls. The automobile also requires an enormous amount of energy to move at normal speeds, and it produces significant amounts of air pollution and greenhouse gases that climate scientists say are contributing to global warming.

During the early days of the automobile, problems arose that threatened its usefulness. Breakdowns were frequent, fuel was hard to get, and road conditions often made travel difficult. Nevertheless, manufacturers persevered. One significant breakthrough came with Bertha Benz’s record-setting long-distance drive in her steam car in 1888 and Horatio Nelson Jackson’s successful transcontinental crossing of 1903 on a Winton car.

As the automobile grew in popularity, it also changed American society. Families could vacation in previously impossible locations, suburban dwellers rediscover pristine landscapes, and urban shoppers gained the ability to shop outside their cities. Teenagers enjoyed a newfound independence, and dating couples had the opportunity to be alone together in private. At the same time, accidents and deaths from automobiles increased, and demand for licensure and safety regulations grew.

While the automobile has brought many benefits to human society, it has also had serious drawbacks. Automobiles are expensive and pollute the environment when they are damaged or parked improperly. In addition, when too many vehicles try to go in the same direction at the same time, traffic congestion slows them all and leads to air pollution and the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. While these are major concerns, the most important thing that drivers can do to protect their automobiles and the environment is to obey the law.