An automobile, usually called a car (an old word for carriage), is a wheeled vehicle that carries its own engine. (Older terms include motor car, with "motor" referring to what is now usually called the engine, and horseless carriage.) It has seats for the driver and, almost without exception, for at least one passenger.

Table of contents
1 General
2 History
3 Safety
4 Renewable energy and the future
5 Major possible subsystems of a standard automobile
6 Related articles
7 External links
8 Cars 1917 to 2003


The vehicle is designed to travel on roads, although some, notably sport utility vehicles, allow off-road driving. Roads and highways are shared with other traffic such as motorcycles, tractor trailers, and farm implements.

The typical vehicle has just an internal combustion engine and four wheels, although as of 2001, gas-electric hybrid engine-powered cars have begun to enter the market. Other vehicles run on electricity and fuel cells. Three-wheeled automobiles have been built, but are not common due to stability problems.

Automobiles/cars come in configurations such as

See car classification.


The first vehicles were steam engine powered, then electric vehicles were produced by a small number of manufacturers. Later on gasoline (petrol) and diesel engines were implemented.

Steam-powered self propelled vehicles were devised in the late 18th century. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot successfully demonstrated such a vehicle as early as 1769.

Cugnot's invention initially saw little application in his native France, and the center of innovation passed to Britain, where Richard Trevithick was running a steam-carriage in 1801. Such vehicles enjoyed a vogue for a time, and over the next decades such innovations as hand brakes, multi-speed transmissions, and improved speed and steering were developed. Some were commercially successful in providing mass transit, until a backlash against these large speedy vehicles resulted in passing laws that self-propelled vehicles on public roads in Britain must be proceeded by a man on foot waving a red flag and blowing a horn (!). This effectively killed road auto development in the UK for most of the rest of the 19th century, as inventors and engineers shifted their efforts to improvements in railway locomotives. The red flag law was not repealed until 1896.

It is generally claimed that the first automobiles with gasoline powered internal combustion engines were completed almost simultaneously in 1886 by German inventors working independently, Gottlieb Daimler on 3 July 1886 in Mannheim and later Karl Benz and Wilhelm Maybach in Stuttgart. The major breakthrough came with the historic drive of Berta Benz in 1888. Steam, electric, and gasoline powered autos competed for decades, with gasoline internal combustion engines achieving dominence in the 1910s.

The first automobile patent in the United States was granted to Oliver Evans in 1789; in 1804 Evens demonstrated his first successful self-propelled vehicle, which not only was the first automobile in the USA but was also the first amphibious vehicle, as his steam-powered vehicle was able to travel on wheels on land and via a paddle wheel in the water. On November 5, 1895, George B. Selden was granted the a United States patent for a two-stroke automobile engine. This patent did more to hinder than encourage development of autos in the USA until it was overturned on a challenge by Henry Ford.

The large scale, production-line manufacturing of affordable automobiles was debuted by Oldsmobile in 1902, then greatly expanded by Henry Ford in the 1910s. Early automobiles were often referred to as 'horseless carriages', which gives some idea of their design.

Cadillac introduced the electric-self starter in 1911. This device greatly helped the ease of use and popularity of the internal combustion engine auto.

1934 saw the introduction of front wheel drive by CitroŽn with the launch of their Traction Avant.

Alternative fuels for the gasoline (or petrol) engine have been around for many years. During World War II, coal gas was used. Methanol and ethanol (alcohols) are used as petrol extenders in some countries, notably in Australia and the United States. Methanol is often used as a fuel for racing cars.

Automobiles have changed the world with the advent of personal rapid transit. The automobile had a particulary strong impact on America.

In many countries, plentiful supplies of natural gas have seen methane sold as compressed natural gas (CNG) and propane sold as liquified petroleum gas (LPG) alongside petrol and diesel fuels since the 1970s. While a standard automotive engine will run on these fuels, there are some performance differences, notably a loss of power, due to the slower combustion of the alternative fuels. The power loss can often be reduced or eliminated by retuning the engine ignition, or fitting an electronic dual fuel ignition system that compensates for the slower burning fuel. The need to equip filling stations and vehicles with pressure vessels to hold these gaseous fuels and the more stringent safety inspections means that they are only economical in high mileage vehicles or if there are installation incentives. They are most economical where petrol has high taxes and the alternative fuels do not.

The many varieties of automobile racing (also called motorcar racing) collectively constitute one of the most popular categories of sport in the world.


Accidents seem as old as automobile vehicles themselves. Joseph Cugnot crashed his steam-powered "Fardier" against a wall in 1770. The first recorded automobile fatality was Henry Bliss on September 13, 1899 in New York, New York.

Every year thousands of people are killed in traffic, either by crashing into something, or by being crashed into. Major factors in accidents include driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, inattentive driving, overtired driving, road hazards such as snow, potholes and animals, and reckless driving. Special safety features have been built into cars for years (some for the safety of car's occupants only, some for the safety of others):

  • ABS, Anti-lock Braking System, which prevents the car from skidding
  • Airbags, which inflate in a crash to cushion the blow of a head on the dashboard
  • Electronic Stability Program, ESP.
  • crumple zones, which buffers the impact when the car hits something
  • seat belts (or safety belts), which keep a person from being thrown forward
  • cage construction

There are standard tests for safety in new automobiles, like the EuroNCAP. Despite these technological advances, the death toll of car accidents remains high: about 40,000 people die every year in the US, a number which increases annually in line with rising population and increased travel (although the rate per capita and per mile travelled decreases steadily), and a similar number in Europe. A much higher number of accidents result in permanent disability.

See also Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader

Renewable energy and the future

With heavy taxes on fuel, particularly in Europe, tightening environmental laws in the United States, particularly in California, and the possibility of further restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, work on alternative power systems for vehicles continues.

Diesel-powered cars can run with little or no modification on 100% pure biodiesel, a fuel made from vegetable oils. Many cars that currently use gasoline can run on ethanol, a fuel made from plant sugars. Most cars that are designed to run on gasoline are capable of running with 15% ethanol mixed in, and with a small amout of redesign, gasoline-powered vehicles can run on ethanol concentrations as high as 85%.

Attempts at building viable battery-powered electric vehicles continued throughout the 1990s (notably General Motors with the EV1), but cost, speed and inferior driving range made them unviable.

Current research and development is centred on "hybrid" vehicles that use both electric and combustion (pollution) power, and longer-term efforts are based around electric vehicles powered by fuel cells.

Other alternatives being explored involve methane and hydrogen-burning vehicles, fuel cells, and even the stored energy of compressed air (see Air Engine).

Major possible subsystems of a standard automobile

Related articles

External links

Cars 1917 to 2003



2003 Saturn ION2 (left), 2003 Chevrolet Corvette

1937 Chrysler Airflow, 2002 Chrysler PT Cruiser

1917 Hudson Phaeton


1934 Austin Berkeley


1967 BMC Wolseley 6/110


2000 Ford Focus wagon


1973 Australian Ford XB Falcon GT 351

1964 Chevrolet Biscayne

1991 Saturn SL-1

circa 1960 GAZ Chaika parade car
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