Automobiles are motor vehicles designed to move on land under their own power, intended to carry a driver and possibly a small number of passengers. A vehicle devoted mainly to cargo is called a truck, van, or bus.

The automobile was perfected in Germany and France toward the end of the nineteenth century by Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, Emile Levassor, Nicolaus Otto and others. Their engines burned oil, gasoline, kerosene or a combination of these fuels, which was ignited by an electric spark to make the engine run. The power from the engine ran the wheels through a transmission that can be adjusted to make the car move faster or slower.

In the early twentieth century, the automobile revolutionized American society. People who previously had no transportation other than horse and carriage could now drive themselves to work or shopping. The advent of the automobile sparked development of new industries such as gas stations, hotels and roadside restaurants. It ended rural isolation and brought urban amenities like medical care and schools to rural America (although the farm tractor eventually made the family car obsolete on the farm). Highway construction boomed as cities expanded outward from downtown centers and suburban communities were born.

During the 1920s automobiles became affordable for the middle class, and ownership increased rapidly. This was the decade when the term “automobile” entered the English language from French, meaning “self-moving device.” It also was a time when automobile manufacturers introduced features that made driving safer and more comfortable.

After World War II, automotive engineering began to deteriorate. Engineers were increasingly subordinated to the questionable aesthetics of nonfunctional styling, and quality slipped. By the mid-1960s American-made cars were being delivered to consumers with twenty-four defects per thousand miles, many of them safety-related. The high unit profit of the Detroit makers was being paid at the social cost of soaring air pollution and a drain on dwindling oil reserves.

Modern life has become virtually inconceivable without a personal automobile. During the first half of this century, American automobile manufacturing developed rapidly to meet this demand. Production line technology was first pioneered by Ransom Olds at his Oldsmobile factory in 1902. This concept was greatly expanded by Henry Ford with his Model T assembly plant, which produced fifteen million automobiles by the end of 1929.

In recent years, European and Asian manufacturers have produced a wide variety of cars to satisfy growing consumer demand. Some of these vehicles are environmentally friendly and economical, while others are sporty and luxurious. As technology advances, automobiles are likely to continue to change in shape and function. For example, newer models are being built with more efficient engines and lighter materials. These advances will make automobiles more environmentally friendly, and they may even be powered by electricity. The future of the automobile will depend on the ability of governments to regulate its use in ways that protect the environment and the health of drivers.