An automobile (also called a motor car or auto) is a wheeled, self-propelled vehicle used for transporting passengers. Most modern automobiles are powered by internal combustion engines, most often fueled with gasoline but sometimes with diesel or other fuels. They may also be powered by electric motors, although these are rarely commercially successful. Automobiles are usually designed to carry a passenger, but some have special cargo capacities.

Exactly when and how the automobile came to be is a complex story that spans several hundred years. The scientific and technical building blocks of the modern automobile were laid in the late 1600s and early 1700s with inventions like gunpowder ignition, the steam engine, and the internal combustion engine. The modern automobile was perfected toward the end of the 19th century by engineers such as Karl Benz and Henry Ford, who revolutionized production methods with the assembly line, making it possible to manufacture enough cars at lower prices that middle-class families could afford them.

As the 20th century progressed, the automobile became the cornerstone of a new consumer-oriented society. It helped transform the country’s economic structure, and it created many jobs in ancillary industries such as oil and rubber. New services like gas stations and convenience stores sprang up to meet the needs of a mobile population. In addition, the automobile gave Americans the freedom to travel and explore more places than had ever been possible before.

For people with families, having a car allows them to visit relatives and friends who live far away; attend sporting events or concerts in town; and enjoy the outdoors year-round. Compared to riding in an overcrowded bus, sitting next to strangers for hours at a time, or walking through the snow to get to a store, driving in a car provides comfort and safety. It can also be a great way to bond with family members.

In today’s society, most of us would find it difficult to imagine life without our cars. It’s easy to forget that the modern automobile was once a novelty. Engineers in the postwar era often subordinated function to the questionable aesthetics of nonfunctional styling, and automotive quality declined. The era of the gas-guzzling road cruiser ended with stricter rules regarding air pollution and energy consumption; with rising gasoline prices; with government imposition of vehicle safety standards; and with the growing penetration of Japanese fuel-efficient, functionally designed small cars into the U.S. and world markets.

The car is a symbol of power, freedom, and individual achievement. The pride one feels when owning a car is shared by drivers of all kinds, from Nell Richardson and Alice Burke in 1916, who drove around the country on their own to support women’s rights to vote, to those who show up at the polls in a green SUV with room for all the kids and their stuff. Automobiles are an integral part of our lives, and we should be thankful for the advances that make them so comfortable, efficient, and safe.