Automobiles are vehicles that run primarily on roads and transport people rather than cargo. They typically have four wheels, seat one to eight people, and use an internal combustion engine or electric motor for propulsion. Some types of automobiles also use alternative fuels such as vegetable oil or natural gas, or hybrid technology that combines an internal combustion engine with an electric motor.

The first automobiles were invented in the late 1800s, with Karl Benz making the first modern car in 1885. These vehicles replaced horse-drawn carriages, which had been the primary method of transportation until then. Early automobiles were expensive and only available to the wealthy, but mass production techniques pioneered by Henry Ford allowed many more people to afford a car by 1920. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler became the Big Three automakers, although they funneled much of their resources to the war effort in World War II.

A car is a complex machine with hundreds of different systems that work together to make it run smoothly and safely. The most important system is the engine, which generates power that turns the wheels and produces electricity to operate lights and other equipment. The transmission and axles are important for turning the wheels, and steering is vital to stability. The brakes stop the car when needed, and the air conditioning cools the interior in summer and heats it in winter.

In addition to their role as transportation, automobiles have transformed society. They allow people to live in urban areas and travel to rural ones. They enable people to take part in outdoor recreational activities, and they have brought new services such as service stations, motels, and roadside restaurants. In addition, they have sparked new laws and regulations such as speed limits, driving license requirements and safety features. The automobile has also brought harm to the environment, polluting the air and draining dwindling petroleum reserves.

Even though they are a major source of pollution and congestion, automobiles have many positive effects. They give millions of jobs in the factories that produce them, and they provide a form of transportation for millions of other workers who rely on cars to get to their jobs or to visit family and friends. For many Americans, the car has become a symbol of freedom and mobility. It is not a vehicle that can be dismissed, but it is gradually losing its place as the dominant force of change in American life. New forces—the electronic media, the laser, and the robot—are charting a future in which the automobile will no longer be the main force for change. The automobile, like its ancestors, will still be with us but will be a supporting actor in the Age of Electronics. This article is adapted from “Automobiles,” a chapter in the book The Reader’s Companion to American History, by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers, 1991. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.