The automobile is a self-propelled vehicle that provides transportation for individuals or groups of people. It is a modern version of the ancient carriage and the horse-drawn wagon. Today the car is the primary means of transport for most people in many countries. Its development has transformed the world and greatly increased the freedom of movement of its owners.
The earliest self-propelled vehicles were steam-powered, although Nicolas Joseph Cugnot built the first automobile (Paris, 1789): a heavy three-wheeled, steam-driven carriage, capable of a maximum speed of 3 mph (5 kph). Later came gasoline engines and electric motors. During the 19th century, mass production of automobiles began. The first automobile assembly plants opened in the United States, including one in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1914. Industries and services that supplied fuel, parts, and maintenance for automobiles also grew. Many of these industries benefited from the rapid expansion of America’s middle class in the 1910s and 1920s.
Various inventors and engineers contributed to the development of the automobile, with Karl Benz, a German engineer, being given credit for the first true automobile in 1885 or 1886. Other manufacturers followed, using their own designs and technologies. By the 1930s, Henry Ford developed an assembly line that made cars more affordable, which greatly expanded their use in American society.
Today there are approximately 1.4 billion cars in the world, most of which run on petroleum-based fuels such as gasoline and diesel fuel. Some automobiles are also designed to use other fuels, such as wood gas, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), ethanol or a mixture of ethanol and gasoline called flex-fuel. The fuel-efficient automobile has become a major factor in the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, which are a greenhouse gas.
Some automobiles are specially designed for off-road use, in which case their systems must be durable and simple. Others are designed for high-speed travel on limited-access roads, in which case they need more passenger comfort options and optimized high-speed handling and stability. Other automobiles are specially designed for special usage, such as a bus, mini-bus or truck; a fire brigade vehicle; or a police or ambulance car.
Automobiles are used for a wide range of purposes in daily life, from work to leisure activities. They allow for rapid and reliable transportation in emergency situations such as when a loved one becomes sick or when a problem arises at the office. In addition, automobiles are useful for errands and trips to shopping malls. They can also be used to visit friends or to take a family vacation.
In addition to these practical applications, the automobile is a status symbol for many people. Its design is constantly evolving, and manufacturers are introducing new technological features such as automatic safety equipment. Despite these advantages, the automobile has a number of disadvantages as well, such as its dependence on fossil fuels, which is a major contributor to climate change; and its vulnerability to theft. For this reason, some people choose not to own an automobile.