Few inventions have influenced the economic and social development of modern times as much as the automobile. It has been a major force in reshaping cities, allowing the movement of goods over long distances, and enabling new types of recreation and travel. It has also shaped many other industries that support it. It is one of the leading producers of steel and petroleum, as well as a major consumer of other industrial products, such as glass, paint, batteries, tires, and fuel cells. It has revolutionized personal and business transportation, providing great freedom of movement for its owners and fostering sprawl—the straggling, low-density development that degrades landscapes, wastes energy, causes traffic congestion, and immobilizes the cars that make sprawl possible. It has contributed to the decline of railroads and to the emergence of highway systems as the primary means of intercity travel.

The automobile was invented and perfected in Germany and France toward the end of the 1800s. Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, working separately, developed early engines that could drive carriages over rough roads. But their vehicles were expensive, unreliable, and prone to accidents. Emile Levassor and Armand Peugeot of France used Daimler engines in their vehicles, but they built their own chassis. The 1901 Mercedes, designed by Wilhelm Maybach for the Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, is regarded as the first modern motorcar in every essential respect.

In the 1920s Henry Ford introduced mass production techniques that became standard. He also created a model, the Model T, that sold for less than half the average annual wage of a factory worker. The automobile soon dominated American life and became the backbone of a new consumer goods-oriented society. It has had enormous global impact as well.

Automobiles have also been the subject of ferocious battles over their design, safety, and ecological impact. Engineering in the postwar era has often been subordinated to questionable aesthetics of nonfunctional styling, and quality has declined to the point that by the mid-1960s American-made cars were being delivered to consumers with an average of twenty-four defects a vehicle. The automobile has contributed to air pollution, the destruction of natural habitats, and a drain on dwindling world oil supplies.

The automobile is a complicated technical system with specialized functions that require sophisticated mechanical and electrical systems, sophisticated computer software to control them, and advanced materials such as high-strength plastics and new alloys of ferrous and nonferrous metals. Yet it is an indispensable tool for modern life. It provides fast, reliable transportation and facilitates a wide variety of jobs. And the technology of the automobile has influenced every industry that depends on it, from the construction of cities to police, fire, and utility service to a vast array of consumer goods and services. In addition, the automobile has provided a powerful political instrument that can be used for good or bad purposes. For example, in the United States it has been the engine of change as well as a source of tremendous frustration and conflict.