An automobile is a four-wheeled vehicle that is used for passenger transportation and powered by an internal combustion engine using a volatile fuel. It is a complex technical system with numerous subsystems that have specific design functions. Many of the automobile’s components have evolved from breakthroughs in technology such as electronic computers, high-strength plastics and new alloys of steel and nonferrous metals.
Automobiles are the most common form of motor vehicles worldwide, and the most widely used means of family transportation. In the United States, three trillion kilometers (five trillion miles) are driven each year on average. Modern life is hard to imagine or at least highly inconvenient without access to a car.
The first modern automobiles were powered by electricity, but that soon gave way to the gasoline-powered car. German engineer Karl Benz is usually credited with inventing the modern automobile around 1885, but other inventors had been working on cars prior to that date. By the 1920s, gasoline-powered automobiles had overtaken all other types on Europe’s streets and highways. American automaker Henry Ford innovated production methods at his Highland Park, Michigan factory, which introduced modern assembly line techniques that reduced the price of Ford’s Model T runabout to the point that it became affordable for middle-class families.
Modern car makers use a variety of methods to develop new models and improve existing ones. They often focus on safety, fuel economy and environmental performance. They also use innovative materials such as lightweight, high-strength plastics, advanced alloys of iron and steel, and high-performance composites to cut costs and weight.
Some automobiles are designed with a roof that can be opened for an open-air drive, and sportier versions are called convertibles. Other models have body styles that include station wagons, hatchbacks, sedans and coupes. In recent years, manufacturers have aimed to increase the quality of interiors and technology features.
In addition to the mechanical parts, there is a wide range of accessories available for automobiles, from sound systems and radios to air conditioning, power steering and brakes. These accessories can make driving a car more comfortable and enjoyable.
The word “automobile” comes from the French words for self-moving and means a vehicle that doesn’t need horses or other outside power to move. Today, there are more than 500 million automobiles in operation worldwide. They consume more than a third of the world’s oil and produce more pollution than any other industry. The automobile’s impact on the environment has led to the establishment of international agreements regulating greenhouse gases and air pollutants. In the United States, the federal government regulates automobile emissions and safety standards. The public is also encouraged to use alternative means of transportation when possible. Public transportation includes buses, passenger trains and trams. These are generally much faster and more economical than automobiles when they must travel long distances in a hurry. In addition, subways and airport shuttles allow people to get where they want to go quickly and safely when traffic jams are a problem.