An automobile is a wheeled motor vehicle, used mostly for transporting people. It is powered by an internal combustion engine that uses a volatile fuel and often has four to eight wheels. The term comes from French, from the words auto + mobile (literally “motor car”). It is widely considered one of the most important inventions of modern times, transforming many aspects of human society.

Automobiles have been in use for a few centuries, and have become one of the most significant technologies of the twentieth century. They are an integral part of modern life and a symbol of wealth. They have changed the way people live and work, enabling them to travel more freely than ever before. Without the automobile, most people would find it difficult to get around. In the United States, people drive more than three trillion miles per year on average.

Early in the 1900s, automobile engineering was driven by new technical developments such as electric ignition and the electric self-starter (both by Charles Kettering for the Oldsmobile Company in 1910-1911), independent suspension, four-wheel brakes, and the introduction of the assembly line by Ransom Eli Olds at his Oldsmobile factory in 1902. The assembly line revolutionized automotive manufacturing, making the car affordable for the middle class.

In addition to its practicality in rural areas, the automobile made urban living more livable by bringing services like schools, medical care, and shopping within easy reach. It also enabled families to work in cities while remaining close to home. The resulting suburbanization of the American landscape gave rise to the sprawling house style, changing the architecture of the traditional family dwelling and altering the conception of the city itself.

The automobile is a large and complex mechanical system that contains thousands of components. Some of these subsystems have been designed and manufactured to fulfill specific design functions. Others have emerged from technological breakthroughs, including electronic computers, high-strength plastics, and novel alloys of steel and nonferrous metals. The development of the modern automobile has accelerated as manufacturers and suppliers strive to maintain or increase their market share. It is no longer possible to keep up with demand by simply improving the existing model, so annual design changes have become commonplace.

The modern automobile has also spawned other technical developments, such as automotive safety systems and emissions control. These have been influenced by legislation, consumer demand, and the need for new models to stay competitive with other producers. In order to compete in this environment, research and development engineers constantly seek new ways to improve automobile performance and safety. The industry’s technical advances have fueled the expansion of the car as a lifestyle choice, and its ubiquity has created new challenges for designers and researchers in developing more environmentally friendly vehicles. There are currently many efforts underway to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, such as hybrid cars. A rotary engine, which is less polluting than the piston and crankshaft-driven conventional engines, has been proposed as a viable alternative to the gasoline-fueled automobile.