Automobiles, sometimes referred to as motor cars, are four-wheeled vehicles for passenger transportation propelled by an internal combustion engine that uses a volatile fuel. The modern automobile is a complex technical system employing many subsystems that are designed to function as part of a unified whole. Its development has been shaped by advances in design engineering and production technology, such as electronic computers and high-strength plastics, as well as by environmental factors that include air pollution and safety legislation.
The scientific and technological building blocks of the automobile date back several hundred years. In the 1860s Siegfried Marcus developed a prototype that used gasoline to power a two-stroke internal combustion engine. He built a crude vehicle without seats, steering or brakes, but it was the first motor car. Karl Benz, an engineer, followed with his own design in the 1880s.
At that time, however, the automobile was still expensive and available only to those with sufficient money to own one. Henry Ford, an American businessman and engineer, envisioned mass personal “automobility.” His Model T runabout in 1910 proved successful, making the car affordable to working class people in America.
Automobiles have made great contributions to social change. They have given people freedom of movement and access to jobs, goods and services, which in turn created a variety of industries and generated more than a trillion dollars in wages in the United States alone. But the car is also a source of congestion and environmental damage. The pollution from millions of cars can cause traffic jams and may contribute to climate change. Public transportation such as buses, trains and trams can get people where they want to go faster than automobiles in traffic jams and often more cheaply than an automobile alone.