Automobiles are a means of transport that uses a motorized internal combustion engine to propel a car or truck. Today, the automobile is the dominant mode of transportation in developed countries with more than 1.4 billion vehicles operating worldwide.

A car can be driven by a person or, in some cases, can be driven autonomously using sensors to navigate the environment. This form of transportation has greatly increased people’s mobility and freedom to travel and pursue their activities without the constraints of public transit schedules or routes. However, the automobile has also been a major source of controversy and debate due to environmental concerns, safety issues, and its effect on society and culture.

The first modern automobile was designed and built in Germany toward the end of the nineteenth century by Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, and Wilhelm Maybach. Their 1901 Mercedes incorporated many features that would make modern vehicles more advanced than the earlier horse-drawn stagecoaches and carriages that inspired them. The success of these early models helped spur a growing industry of manufacturers who were able to produce cars at moderate prices and lower operating expenses.

During the 1920s, the automobile became a central force in the development of American consumer goods society. It drove the growth of ancillary industries, including service stations and roadside restaurants, as well as the construction of highways and streets, one of the nation’s largest items of government spending. The automobile also ended rural isolation and facilitated urbanization, while stimulating outdoor recreation and bringing services to suburban communities that were impossible or difficult for public transit systems to coordinate.

In his 1973 book, The Private Future, British architect Martin Pawley saw the automobile as a “shibboleth of privatization” that provided the symbolic and actual means for withdrawing from society. Despite its negative aspects, he believed that the automotive/suburban culture of North America would continue to grow in size and technological capacities.

Postwar problems with the automobile included concerns over the nonfunctional styling of many American cars and complaints about the use of fossil fuels. The latter was highlighted by the draining of world oil reserves and the pollution caused by the exhaust from gas-guzzling American cars.

In addition to the engineering and manufacturing skills required to design, build, and maintain an automobile, it requires vast amounts of raw materials. From metals to natural fibers and the sand and quartz used in glass production, automobile manufacturing utilizes more raw materials than nearly any other industrial process. Economic, ecological, and geopolitical changes in the sourcing of these materials have played an important role in the evolution of the auto industry. These factors have also influenced the development of alternative fuels and the creation of hybrid, electrical, and even fully autonomous vehicles. These new technologies have the potential to dramatically alter the automobile industry in the years to come.