Automobiles are motor vehicles, typically four-wheeled, that carry a driver and usually a limited number of passengers. They are propelled by an internal combustion engine using a volatile fuel. The automobile is the most influential type of transportation ever created, transforming societies and economies in many ways. It has become the backbone of a consumer goods-oriented society, and one of the most important forces for change in twentieth century America.

The first automobiles were steam or electrically powered, but it was not until the gas powered vehicle was invented in 1908 by Henry Ford that the modern car began to emerge. Prior to that the car was mostly used by wealthy individuals who could afford it. As the middle class grew, more people were able to buy automobiles and they rapidly replaced horse-drawn carriages. The development of paved roads and highways accompanied the rise of automobiles which helped boost local economies and provide jobs. The automobile also allowed more people to travel, which boosted tourism.

Today’s automobile is a complex technical system with thousands of components that perform a variety of functions. Its design and construction continue to evolve with breakthroughs in technology such as electronic computers, high-strength plastics, and new alloys of steel and nonferrous metals. Some of these improvements are the result of regulations to reduce air pollution, safety laws, and competition among manufacturers worldwide.

Throughout the history of the automobile, it has been a primary symbol of wealth and power in American culture. The automobile helped to bring urban amenities, such as schools and medical facilities, to rural areas and ended the isolation of family farms. It spawned new industries, including highway and hotel construction, and led to the emergence of cities as the most significant economic centers of the nation.

The American automobile industry was dominated by several major firms, which capitalized on cheap raw materials and an absence of tariff barriers to encourage sales over a large geographic area. The innovations of a number of entrepreneurs, most notably Henry Ford’s Model T, and the application of industrial methods pioneered by companies such as General Motors and Ford Motor Company, eventually enabled the mass production of automobiles.

By the early 1920s, automobiles were the most important source of employment in the United States. They were also the chief consumer of petroleum and steel, and the primary producer of many other ancillary industries. By the mid-1920s, however, automotive production was saturating the market and technological advances slowed. During World War II, automobile production and design slowed further as manufacturers devoted their resources to war effort. After the war the automotive industry regained momentum. However, concerns about the environmental and economic impact of automobiles prompted some governments to regulate emissions and fuel consumption.