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Automobiles (or cars, for short) are a type of motor vehicle that is used to transport passengers. They typically have four wheels and can seat one to eight people. Most automobiles are powered by an internal combustion engine, which uses gasoline, diesel fuel, or kerosene to create motion. The engine’s power is transferred to the wheels through a transmission system. Many modern automobiles have safety features, such as airbags and crumple zones, that help prevent or reduce the severity of injuries in a crash.

The scientific and technical building blocks for the modern automobile go back several hundred years. Leonardo da Vinci created designs and models for vehicles in the 15th century, but the automobile as a practical device for transport did not take shape until the late 1800s. Engineers such as Nicolas Joseph Cugnot and Richard Trevithick developed steam-driven road vehicles. Karl Benz is generally credited with inventing the first true motor car, but his early prototypes were expensive and impractical for everyday use.

Henry Ford was the key figure in bringing the automobile to mass production. He innovated the assembly line technique at his Highland Park, Michigan plant, which opened in 1910, allowing him to produce cars at a lower cost and make them affordable for the average American consumer. Cheap raw materials and a lack of tariff barriers encouraged American manufacturers to enter the automobile business.

In the United States, the automobile became the dominant mode of transportation during the 1920s and became a cornerstone of the new consumer goods-oriented economy. By the end of the 20th century, it ranked as the country’s largest source of employment and was the primary consumer of steel, petroleum, and other industrial products. The automobile transformed the way people lived and socialized in the United States, making it more convenient to travel long distances and shop for consumer goods.

In addition to providing mobility, automobiles can store and carry cargo that is much more difficult to transport on other modes of transport. They can also be driven off-road, enabling access to remote areas that would otherwise be impossible for other forms of transport. Some automobiles are designed to be self-driving, in which case a computer system greatly aids or replaces the driver. In most cases, however, the human driver must be present in order to operate the vehicle safely. Despite these limitations, there has been increasing research and development of semiautonomous and autonomous vehicles.