Automobiles are vehicles designed to transport a driver and a limited number of passengers. The word is derived from the French auto-mobile, meaning “horseless carriage.” The development of automobiles has been a major social, economic and technological phenomenon. It has changed the way people live, work and play. It has shaped urban architecture, created new industries and transformed the landscape of rural America. The automobile has influenced lifestyles and opened up new opportunities for personal freedom.

It has also caused many social problems. It has accelerated the spread of infectious diseases and contributed to air pollution. It has led to the development of traffic rules, highways and bridges. It has brought jobs to towns and cities and stimulated outdoor recreation, creating a variety of related businesses such as gas stations and motels. It has reduced the isolation of rural residents and made it possible for families to move to the suburbs where there are more schools, hospitals and other services.

During the first part of the 20th century, the automobile became a dominant force in society. Its use grew rapidly as a result of improvements in design and production techniques. It became a necessity for modern life as the distances to work and leisure destinations grew. Most of the world’s population now owns an automobile.

The automotive industry owes its start to German inventor Karl Benz, who introduced the first modern gasoline-powered car in 1885. Its development was aided by the work of other engineers, such as Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach and Nicolaus Otto. The 1901 Mercedes, designed by Wilhelm Maybach for Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, was a landmark in automotive engineering and design. It weighed only fourteen pounds per horsepower and reached speeds of fifty-three miles an hour. Its moderate price, compared to that of the horse-drawn carriage, enabled most middle-class Americans to afford it.

By 1920, cars had supplanted the horse-drawn carriage on the roads of most industrialized nations. The gasoline-powered vehicle became the dominant form of transportation and by 1940, the majority of passenger cars had an internal combustion engine. By the 1950s, the basic features of post-World War II automobiles had been established, including a closed all-steel body, self-starter, hydraulic brakes and syncromesh transmission.

The modern automobile is a complex machine with many systems that must function together without failure. Some of these are safety-related, such as the antilock brakes and electronic stability control, while others contribute to comfort and performance, such as engine, transmission and suspension system design, interior materials and finish, and the choice of fuel. Most of the automobile’s original mechanical controls have been replaced with electrical controls. Dedicated automotive fuses and circuit breakers prevent damage from overloading.

Most modern cars are computerized machines with numerous sensors that monitor a wide range of conditions, such as steering wheel angle and velocity, engine and transmission performance, traction control, air conditioning and cruise control. Some even have radar systems that can detect other cars. The automobile is continuing to evolve and, eventually, it will be possible for a vehicle to drive itself.

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