Automobiles, or automobiles for short, are four-wheeled vehicles that are driven by a motor and used for transport. They have revolutionized the way people live and work, giving them greater freedom to travel and shop than was ever possible before. Automobiles are a major economic force, creating the biggest consumer goods market in history and providing many jobs in related industries such as steel and petroleum. The automobile also has profound social effects, allowing people to travel longer distances to work and school and to visit friends and relatives. The car has expanded family ties and made it easier for people to move from rural areas into urban areas.

The scientific and technical building blocks of the modern automobile date back several hundred years. In the late 1600s, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens invented a type of internal engine that sparked when he added gunpowder to it. Other manufacturers produced steam-driven cars in the 1890s and early 1900s, but these were heavy, slow to start and required constant attention to maintain a smooth running speed. Other manufacturers sold battery-powered electric cars, which were convenient but could not be driven at high speeds and had to stop for recharging.

In the mid-1920s, American manufacturers developed a system of mass production that enabled them to produce and sell millions of automobiles at relatively low prices. This system of making cars on assembly lines, where workers do only one thing as parts of the car pass by them, was widely adopted by other manufacturers. It reduced the cost of manufacturing a car to about one-third that of manufacturing it in a traditional manner, with skilled craftsmen handing the parts over to workers in the final stages of construction.

As demand for cars grew in the 1950s and ’60s, the industry responded with larger vehicles and better-appointed interiors. It was also in this era that the idea of a “smart car”—a computer-based vehicle that would be programmed to assist drivers with navigation and control functions—began to develop.

The rise of the SUV and minivan, which offer more cargo and passenger space than traditional sedans, helped to change the shape of today’s cars. And in recent years, rising fuel costs and concern about air pollution have revived interest in electric and hybrid electric automobiles.

The automobile is a symbol of America’s insatiable desire for consumer goods, and has been an important factor in the growth of the nation into a leading industrial power. It has influenced the country’s culture and shaped the lifestyles of its citizens in many ways, from the artful mid-century modern designs that cruised U.S. highways and byways to the sleek, sporty sports models of today. Automobiles continue to play a vital role in the lives of most Americans, even as technology has improved their safety and comfort. But engineering has been subordinated to questionable aesthetics and nonfunctional styling, and the quality of cars has deteriorated to the point that they often require costly repairs shortly after being purchased.