An automobile is a wheeled motor vehicle designed to carry passengers and sometimes goods. Depending on the model, it may seat one to eight people and be powered by steam, electricity, or gasoline. The branch of engineering that deals with the design, manufacture, and technology of automobiles is known as automotive engineering.
The car is a cultural icon, symbolizing both the promise and pitfalls of modern life. Once cost-prohibitive, it now dominates the world’s roads and provides personal freedom of movement that once required a train ticket. However, it also encourages sprawl (i.e., straggling, low-density urban development) that degrades landscapes and increases traffic congestion. It also promotes over-consumption of oil and produces air pollution that damages human health.
The first automobiles were based on the internal combustion engine, invented by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in the late 1600s. The gasoline-powered automobile became dominant by the early 1900s, largely due to the innovations of U.S. industrialist Henry Ford. His mass production techniques revolutionized the industry, reducing the price of the Model T until it was affordable for middle-class families.
Today, a large number of different models exist to suit the diverse needs and lifestyles of consumers. Each of these designs is the result of a complex design process, in which numerous factors must be balanced. The arrangement, choice, and type of components vary according to the model’s use, from fuel economy for long trips to handling and speed capability for sports cars. Nevertheless, most cars share basic components and systems that allow for interchangeable parts to meet consumer demands at lower costs.