Automobiles are vehicles that have a motor and drive train. They are fueled by liquid or solid fuels that run an internal combustion engine. Most cars have a transmission that takes power from the engine and drives the wheels of the car. Some automobiles are designed for specific purposes, such as fire engines or police cars. Others are general purpose, such as passenger cars.

The automobile may be the most significant invention of the 20th century, and it has transformed every aspect of modern life. People use automobiles to travel to work, school and social activities. There are more than three trillion miles (five trillion kilometers) driven each year on all-purpose passenger cars. Most Americans do not live close to public transportation options, so they depend on automobiles to get around. Having your own car allows you to take control of your personal transportation and saves time compared to waiting for a bus or taxi.

Although automobiles were first invented and perfected in Germany and France toward the end of the 1800s, it was American carmaker Henry Ford that made them affordable to the middle class. He innovated mass production techniques that allowed him to reduce the price of his Model T to a point where most Americans could afford it. His methods radically improved industrial manufacturing and ushered in the age of the automotive industry as a dominant force in America’s economy.

The automotive industry is highly competitive, with hundreds of producers at one time or another competing for the same market. Steam, electric and gasoline-powered cars competed for decades, with the gas-internal combustion car gaining dominance by the 1910s. Steam-powered cars achieved high speeds, but had a short range and were difficult to start. Electric cars had limited power and recharging stations were often hard to find.

In the postwar era into the 1960s, engineering became subordinated to the questionable aesthetics of nonfunctional styling and quality deteriorated to the point that by the mid-1960s American-made cars were being delivered with an average of twenty-four defects per vehicle. In addition, questions arose about the environmental cost of ‘gas guzzling’ road cruisers and the draining of world oil reserves. This opened the automotive market to foreign producers, notably Germany and Japan with their fuel-efficient, functionally designed, well-built small cars.

Special automobiles include fire engines and ambulances, as well as patrol and utility vehicles such as snow plows, fork-lifts and garbage trucks. Some are specially equipped to carry disabled passengers, such as those who need wheelchair access. A number are built to carry medical supplies, and many are used to transport goods, such as furniture and food. There are also automobiles used in construction, such as crane vehicles and those that haul heavy machinery. Other types of automobiles are recreational, such as racing cars and sports utility vehicles. The automobile has become a cultural icon, with a whole subculture surrounding it. Many movies, songs, poems and plays have been written about the automobile.