Automobiles are motor vehicles that carry people or goods. The word comes from the Latin auto (car) and the Greek , meaning “to move.” Today, there are more than 590 million cars in the world. Most are powered by internal combustion engines that burn gasoline, a liquid petroleum product. The technology of automobiles is constantly changing, as engineers develop new ways to make them more fuel-efficient and safer. Many people think of the automobile as one of the greatest inventions in modern times, but its origins date back several hundred years.
The modern automobile became widespread after 1920, when production methods introduced by U.S. carmaker Henry Ford revolutionized industrial manufacturing. Ford’s assembly lines reduced the price of his Model T to the point where it could be afforded by middle-class families. Ford also marketed his vehicle to consumers by offering financing, a new concept in consumer finance.
Before the automobile became common, people who wanted to travel long distances had to depend on trains, boats or horse carriages. A few of these early vehicles were powered by steam, but they could not go very fast and were difficult to maintain. Electric automobiles were available in 1900, but they had a limited range and charging stations were hard to find.
Gasoline-powered automobiles soon dominated the market. During the 1860s Siegfried Marcus developed the idea of using a two-stroke engine to power a moving machine. In 1870 he built a crude handcart with a gasoline engine, which was the first automobile. Benz and Daimler independently developed similar engines in the same period, but they were unaware of each other’s work.
During the next century, a number of innovations sped up production and made automobiles more affordable. The electric self-starter and the closed all-steel body were important innovations. Other improvements included hydraulic brakes and syncromesh transmissions. Various pistonless rotary engines were tried, but only Mazda’s Wankel engine has had any significant success.
The success of the automobile has brought a host of problems. Its fuel consumption contributes to air pollution and global climate change. Traffic congestion makes it difficult to get from place to place. Automobiles can be dangerous to drive, and people are hurt or killed in crashes. It is often cheaper and more convenient to use public transportation, such as buses, trains or subways.
Many people have criticized the design of modern automobiles. They have been criticized for their questionable aesthetics and nonfunctional styling, as well as their high costs. Some have complained that the higher unit profits made by Detroit automakers come at a cost to society in terms of increased air pollution and a drain on dwindling world oil reserves. Nevertheless, automobiles continue to be the dominant mode of transport in most of the world. Many countries have regulations governing automobile manufacture and use. These laws are designed to protect the safety of drivers and passengers, as well as the environment. In the United States, automobile regulations are set by the federal government and individual state governments.