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Karl Benz's "Velo" model (1894) - entered into the first automobile race
Karl Benz's "Velo" model (1894) - entered into the first automobile race

An automobile (also motor car or simply car) is a wheeled passenger vehicle that carries its own motor. Most definitions of the term specify that automobiles are designed to run primarily on roads, to have seating for one to seven people, to typically have four wheels, and to be constructed principally for the transport of people rather than goods.[1] However, the term is far from precise.

As of 2002, there were 590 million passenger cars worldwide (roughly one car for every eleven people).[2]



Karl Benz
Karl Benz
Replica of the Benz Patent Motorwagen built in 1886
Replica of the Benz Patent Motorwagen built in 1886
Ford Model T, 1927, regarded as the first affordable automobile
Ford Model T, 1927, regarded as the first affordable automobile

Some sources suggest that Ferdinand Verbiest, whilst a member of a Jesuit mission in China, may have built the first steam powered car around 1672.[3][4] François Isaac de Rivaz, a Swiss inventor, designed the first internal combustion engine which was fuelled by a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen and used it to develop the world's first vehicle to run on such an engine. The design was not very successful, as was the case with Samuel Brown, Samuel Morey, and Etienne Lenoir who each produced vehicles powered by clumsy internal combustion engines.[5]

An automobile powered by a Otto gasoline engine was built in Germany by Karl Benz in 1885 and granted a patent in the following year. Although several other engineers (including Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach and Siegfried Marcus) were working on the problem at about the same time, Benz is generally credited with the invention of the modern automobile.[5]

Approximately 25 of Benz's vehicles were built before 1893, when his first four-wheeler was introduced. They were powered with four-stroke engines of his own design. Emile Roger of France, already producing Benz engines under license, now added the Benz automobile to his line of products. Because France was more open to the early automobiles, more were built and sold in France through Roger than Benz sold in Germany. From 1890 to 1895 about 30 vehicles were built by Daimler and his assistant, Wilhelm Maybach, either at the Daimler works or in the Hotel Hermann, where they set up shop after falling out with their backers. Benz and Daimler seem to have been unaware of each other's early work and worked independently.

In 1890, Emile Levassor and Armand Peugeot of France began producing vehicles with Daimler engines, and so laid the foundation of the motor industry in France. The first American car with a gasoline internal combustion engine supposedly was designed in 1877 by George Baldwin Selden of Rochester, New York, who applied for a patent on an automobile in 1879. In Britain there had been several attempts to build steam cars with varying degrees of success with Thomas Rickett even attempting a production run in 1860.[6] Santler from Malvern is recognized by the Veteran Car Club of Great Britain as having made the first petrol-powered car in the country in 1894[7] followed by Frederick William Lanchester in 1895 but these were both one-offs.[7] The first production vehicles came from the Daimler Motor Company, founded by Harry J. Lawson in 1896, and making their first cars in 1897.[7]

In 1892 Rudolf Diesel got a patent for a "New Rational Combustion Engine" by modifying the Carnot Cycle. In 1897 he built the first Diesel Engine.[5] In 1895, George B. Selden was granted a United States patent for a two-stroke automobile engine (U.S. Patent 549160 ). This patent did more to hinder than encourage development of autos in the United States. Steam, electric, and gasoline powered autos competed for decades, with gasoline internal combustion engines achieving dominance in the 1910s.

The large-scale, production-line manufacturing of affordable automobiles was debuted by Ransom Eli Olds at his Oldsmobile factory in 1902. This assembly line concept was then greatly expanded by Henry Ford in the 1910s. Development of automotive technology was rapid, due in part to the hundreds of small manufacturers competing to gain the world's attention. Key developments included electric ignition and the electric self-starter (both by Charles Kettering, for the Cadillac Motor Company in 1910-1911), independent suspension, and four-wheel brakes.

Although various pistonless rotary engine designs have attempted to compete with the conventional piston and crankshaft design, only Mazda's version of the Wankel engine has had more than very limited success.

Since the 1920s, nearly all cars have been mass-produced to meet market needs, so marketing plans have often heavily influenced automobile design. It was Alfred P. Sloan who established the idea of different makes of cars produced by one company, so that buyers could "move up" as their fortunes improved. The makes shared parts with one another so that the larger production volume resulted in lower costs for each price range. For example, in the 1950s, Chevrolet shared hood, doors, roof, and windows with Pontiac; the LaSalle of the 1930s, sold by Cadillac, used the cheaper mechanical parts made by the Oldsmobile division.

Automobile history eras [edit]
Brass or Edwardian Vintage Pre-War Post-War Modern

Economics and societal impact

The hydrogen powered FCHV (Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle) was developed by Toyota in 2005
The hydrogen powered FCHV (Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle) was developed by Toyota in 2005
Main article: Future of the car

The economics of personal automobile ownership go beyond the initial cost of the vehicle and includes repairs, maintenance, fuel, depreciation, the cost of borrowing, parking fees, tire replacement, taxes and insurance.[8]

Additionally, there are indirect societal costs such as the costs of maintaining roads and other infrastructure, pollution, public health costs of pollution, health care costs due to accidents, and the cost of finally disposing of the vehicle at the end of its life. The ability for humans to move rapidly from place to place has far reaching implications for the nature of our society. People can now live far from their workplaces, the design of our cities is determined as much by the need to get vehicles into and out of the city as the nature of the buildings and public spaces within the city.[9]

High transportation fuel prices have not seriously reduced car usage but do make it more expensive.[citation needed] One environmental benefit of high fuel prices is that it is an incentive for the production of more efficient (and hence less polluting) car designs - i.e. hybrid vehicles - and the development of alternative fuels. At the beginning of 2006, 1 liter of gasoline cost approximately US$0.60 in the United States and in Germany and other European countries nearly US$1.80. With fuel prices at these levels there is a strong incentive for consumers to purchase lighter, smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, or to simply not drive. These changes are resisted by those with an interest in maintaining the massive economy of car culture. Individual mobility is highly prized in dominant societies so the demand for automobiles is still strong. Alternative individual modes of transport, such as Personal rapid transit, cycling, walking, skating, and organised cargo movement, could serve as an alternative to automobiles if they prove to be socially accepted.[10]

Fuel and propulsion technologies

The Henney Kilowatt, the first modern (transistor-controlled) electric car.
The Henney Kilowatt, the first modern (transistor-controlled) electric car.
See also: Alternative fuel vehicle

Most automobiles in use today are propelled by gasoline (also known as petrol) or diesel internal combustion engines but these are known to cause air pollution and are also blamed for contributing to climate change and global warming.[11] Increasing costs of oil-based fuels and tightening environmental laws and restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions are propelling work on alternative power systems for automobiles. Efforts to improve or replace these technologies include hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles and hydrogen vehicles.


Diesel engined cars have long been popular in Europe with the first models being introduced in the 1930s by Mercedes Benz and Citroen. The main benefit of Diesel combustion engines is its 50% fuel burn efficiency compared with 27% [12] in the best gasoline engines. A down side of the diesel is the presence in the exhaust gases of fine soot particulates and manufacturers are now starting to fit filters to remove these. Many diesel powered cars can also run with little or no modifications on 100% pure biodiesel.


Gasoline engines however have the advantage over diesel in being lighter and able to work at higher rotational speeds and they are the usual choice for fitting in high performance sports cars. Continuous development of gasoline engines for over a hundred years has produced improvements in efficiency and reduced pollution. The carburettor was used on nearly all road car engines until the 1980s but it was long realised that better control of the fuel/air mixture could be achieved with fuel injection. Indirect fuel injection was first used in aircraft engines from 1909, in racing car engines from the 1930s and road cars from the late 1950s. [12] Gasoline Direct Injection (GDI) is now starting to appear in production vehicles such as the 2007 BMW MINI. Exhaust gases are also cleaned up by fitting a catalytic converter into the exhaust system. Clean air legislation in many of the car industries most important markets has made both catalysts and fuel injection virtually universal fittings. Most modern gasoline engines are also capable of running with up to 15% ethanol mixed into the gasoline fuel - older vehicles may have seals and hoses that can be harmed by ethanol. With a small amount of redesign, gasoline-powered vehicles can run on ethanol concentrations as high as 85%. 100% ethanol is used in some parts of the world but vehicles must be started on pure gasoline and switched over to ethanol once the engine is running. Most gasoline engined cars can also run on LPG with the addition of an LPG tank for fuel storage and carburation modifications to add an LPG mixer. LPG produces fewer toxic emissions and is a popular fuel for fork lift trucks that have to operate inside buildings.


The first electric cars were built in the late 1800s, but the building of battery powered vehicles that could rival internal combustion models had to wait for the introduction of modern semiconductor controls. Because they can deliver a high torque at low revolutions electric cars do not require such a complex drivetrain and transmission as internal combustion powered cars. Some are able to accelerate from 0-60 mph (96 km/hour) in 4.0 seconds with a top speed around 130 mph (210 km/h). They have a range of 250 miles (400 km) on the EPA highway cycle requiring 3-1/2 hours to completely charge. Equivalent fuel efficiency to internal combustion is not well defined but some press reports give it at around 135 mpg.


Steam power, usually using an oil or gas heated boiler, was also in use until the 1930s but had the major disadvantage of being unable to power the car until boiler pressure was available. It has the advantage of being able to produce very low emissions as the combustion process can be carefully controlled.

Gas Turbine

In the 1950s there was a brief interest in using gas turbine (jet) engines and several makers including Rover produced prototypes. In spite of the power units being very compact, high fuel consumption, severe delay in throttle response and lack of engine braking meant no cars reached production.

Rotary (Wankel) engines

Rotary Wankel engines were introduced into road cars by NSU with the Ro 80 and later were seen in several Mazda models. In spite of their impressive smoothness, poor reliability and fuel economy led to them largely disappearing. Mazda, however, has continued research on these engines and overcame most of the earlier problems.

Future developments

Much current research and development is centered on hybrid vehicles that use both electric power and internal combustion. Research into alternative forms of power also focus on developing fuel cells, Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI), and even using the stored energy of compressed air or liquid nitrogen.


Main article: Automotive design
The 1955 Citroën DS; revolutionary visual design and technological innovation.
The 1955 Citroën DS; revolutionary visual design and technological innovation.

The design of modern cars is typically handled by a large team of designers and engineers from many different disciplines. As part of the product development effort the team of designers will work closely with teams of design engineers responsible for all aspects of the vehicle. These engineering teams include: chassis, body and trim, powertrain, electrical and production. The design team under the leadership of the design director will typically comprise of an exterior designer, an interior designer (usually referred to as stylists) and a color and materials designer. A few other designers will be involved in detail design of both exterior and interior. For example, a designer might be tasked with designing the rear light clusters or the steering wheel. The color and materials designer will work closely with the exterior and interior designers in developing exterior color paints, interior colors, fabrics, leathers, carpet, wood trim and so on.

In 1924 the American national automobile market began reaching saturation. To maintain unit sales, General Motors instituted annual model-year design changes in order to convince car owners that they needed to buy a new replacement each year. Since 1935 automotive form has been driven more by consumer expectations than by engineering improvement.

There have been many efforts to innovate automobile design funded by the NHTSA, including the work of the NavLab group at Carnegie Mellon University. [13] Recent efforts include the highly publicized DARPA Grand Challenge race.[14]

Acceleration, braking, and measures of turning or agility vary widely between different makes and models of automobile. The automotive publication industry has developed around these performance measures as a way to quantify and qualify the characteristics of a particular vehicle. See quarter mile and 0 to 60mph.


Main article: Car safety
Main article: Automobile accident
Result of a serious automobile accident.
Result of a serious automobile accident.

Road traffic injuries represent about 25% of worldwide injury-related deaths (the leading cause) with an estimated 1.2 million deaths (2004) each year.[15]

Automobile accidents are almost as old as automobiles themselves. Early examples include, Joseph Cugnot, who crashed his steam-powered "Fardier" against a wall in 1771,[16] Mary Ward, who became one of the first document automobile fatalities in 1869 in Parsonstown, Ireland,[17] and Henry Bliss, one of the United State's first pedestrian automobile casualties in 1899 in New York.[18]

Cars have many basic safety problems - for example, they have human drivers who make mistakes, wheels that lose traction when the braking or turning forces are too high. Some vehicles have a high center of gravity and therefore an increased tendency to roll over. When driven at high speeds, collisions can have serious or even fatal consequence.

Early safety research focused on increasing the reliability of brakes and reducing the flammability of fuel systems. For example, modern engine compartments are open at the bottom so that fuel vapors, which are heavier than air, vent to the open air. Brakes are hydraulic and dual circuit so that failures are slow leaks, rather than abrupt cable breaks. Systematic research on crash safety started[citation needed] in 1958 at Ford Motor Company. Since then, most research has focused on absorbing external crash energy with crushable panels and reducing the motion of human bodies in the passenger compartment. This is reflected in most cars produced today.

Airbags, a modern component of automobile safety
Airbags, a modern component of automobile safety

Significant reductions in death and injury have come from the addition of Safety belts and laws in many countries to require vehicle occupants to wear them. Airbags and specialised child restraint systems have improved on that. Structural changes such as side-impact protection bars in the doors and side panels of the car mitigate the effect of impacts to the side of the vehicle. Many cars now include radar or sonar detectors mounted to the rear of the car to warn the driver if he or she is about to reverse into an obstacle or a pedestrian. Some vehicle manufacturers are producing cars with devices that also measure the proximity to obstacles and other vehicles in front of the car and are using these to apply the brakes when a collision is inevitable. There have also been limited efforts to use heads up displays and thermal imaging technologies similar to those used in military aircraft to provide the driver with a better view of the road at night.

There are standard tests for safety in new automobiles, like the EuroNCAP and the US NCAP tests.[19] There are also tests run by organizations such as IIHS and backed by the insurance industry.[20]

Despite technological advances, there is still significant loss of life from car accidents: About 40,000 people die every year in the United States, with similar figures in Europe. This figure increases annually in step with rising population and increasing travel if no measures are taken, but the rate per capita and per mile travelled decreases steadily. The death toll is expected to nearly double worldwide by 2020. A much higher number of accidents result in injury or permanent disability. The highest accident figures are reported in China and India. The European Union has a rigid program to cut the death toll in the EU in half by 2010 and member states have started implementing measures.

Automated control has been seriously proposed and successfully prototyped. Shoulder-belted passengers could tolerate a 32 g emergency stop (reducing the safe intervehicle gap 64-fold) if high-speed roads incorporated a steel rail for emergency braking. Both safety modifications of the roadway are thought to be too expensive by most funding authorities, although these modifications could dramatically increase the number of vehicles that could safely use a high-speed highway.

Further reading

Articles relating to automobile configurations
Car body style and classification 2 plus 2, Antique car, Cabrio coach, Cabriolet, City car, Classic car, Compact car, Compact executive car, Compact MPV, Compact SUV, Convertible, Coupé, Coupé convertible, Coupe utility, Crossover SUV, Custom car, Drophead coupe, Executive car, Fastback, Full-size car, Grand tourer, Hardtop, Hatchback, Hot hatch, Hot rod, Large family car, Leisure activity vehicle, Liftback, Limousine, Luxury car, Microcar, Mid-size car, Mini MPV, Mini SUV, Minivan, Multi-purpose vehicle, Muscle car, Notchback, Panel van, Personal luxury car, Pickup truck, Retractable hardtop, Roadster, Sedan, Saloon, Small family car, Sport compact, Sports car, Sport utility vehicle, Spyder, Station wagon, Estate car, Supermini, Targa top, Taxicab, Touring car, Town car, T-top, Tow truck, Ute, Van, Voiturette
Specialised vehicles Amphibious vehicle, Driverless car, Gyrocar, Flying car.
Propulsion technologies Internal combustion engine, Electric vehicle, Neighborhood electric vehicle, Hybrid vehicle, Battery electric vehicle, Hydrogen vehicle, Fuel cell, Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, Steam car, Alternative fuel cars, Biodiesel, Gasohol, Ethanol, LPG (Propane), Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition, Liquid Nitrogen, Gasoline Direct Injection
Driven wheels Two-wheel drive, Four-wheel drive, Front-wheel drive, Rear-wheel drive, All-wheel drive
Engine positioning Front engine, Rear engine, Mid engine
Layout FF layout, FR layout, MR layout, MF layout, RR layout
Engine configuration Internal combustion engine, Straight-6, V engine, Wankel engine, Reciprocating engine, Inline engine, Flat engine, Flathead engine, Diesel engine, Two-stroke cycle, Four-stroke cycle, Pushrod engine, Straight engine, H engine, Turbodiesel, Hybrid vehicle, Rechargeable energy storage system, Electric vehicle, Hydrogen vehicle
Articles relating to parts of automobiles
Body Framework Body-on-frame, Bumper, Cabrio coach, Chassis, Continental tire, Crumple zone, Dagmar bumpers, Fender, Fender skirts, Grille, Hood, Hood scoop, Monocoque construction, pillar, Pontoon fenders, Quarter panel, Shaker scoop, Spoiler, Subframe, Tonneau
Compartments trunk , hood.
Doors Butterfly doors, Gull-wing door, Scissor doors, Suicide door
Glass Sunroof, Greenhouse, sun visor, Windshield, Windscreen wiper, Windshield washer fluid.
Car mirror Power mirrors.
Other Curb feeler, Antenna ball, Bumper sticker, Hood ornament, Japan Black paint, Monsoonshield, Nerf bar, Tow hitch, Truck accessory
Exterior Equipment Lighting Daytime running lamp, Foglamp, Headlamp, Headlight styling, Hidden headlamps, High intensity discharge, Retroreflector, Sealed beam, Trafficators
Legal and other Vehicle registration plate, Vanity plate, distance sensor, park sensor.
Car engine Air/Fuel Air filter, Automatic Performance Control, Blowoff valve, Boost, Boost controller, Butterfly valve, Carburetor, Charge cooler, Centrifugal type supercharger, Cold air intake, Engine management system, Engine Control Unit, Forced induction, Front mounted intercooler, Fuel filter, Fuel injection, Fuel pump, Fuel tank, Gasoline direct injection, Indirect injection, Intake, Intercooler, Manifold, Manifold vacuum, Mass flow sensor, Naturally-aspirated engine, Ram-air intake, Scroll-type supercharger, Short ram air intake, Supercharger, Throttle body, Top mounted intercooler, Turbocharger, Turbocharged Direct Injection, Twin-turbo, Variable Length Intake Manifold, Variable geometry turbocharger. Warm air intake
Exhaust Catalytic converter, Emissions control devices, Exhaust pipe, Exhaust system, Glasspack, Muffler, Oxygen sensor
Cooling Aircooling, Antifreeze, Ethylene glycol, Radiator, Thermostat
Ignition system Starter, Car battery, Contact breaker, Distributor, Electrical ballast, Ignition coil, Lead-acid battery, Magneto, Spark-ignition, Spark plug
Other Balance shaft, Block heater, Crank. Cam, Camshaft, Connecting rod, Combustion chamber, Crank pin, Crankshaft, Crossflow cylinder head, Crossplane, Desmodromic valve, Engine knocking, Compression ratio, Crank sensor, Cylinder, Cylinder bank, Cylinder block, Cylinder head, Cylinder head porting, Dump valve,Engine balance, Oil filter, Firing order, Freeze plug, Gasket, Head gasket, Hypereutectic piston, Hydrolock, Lean burn, Main bearing, Motor oil, Multi-valve, Oil sludge, Overhead camshaft, Overhead valve, PCV valve, Piston, Piston ring, Pneumatic valve gear, Poppet valve, Power band, Redline, Reverse-flow cylinder head, Rocker arm, Seal, Sleeve valve, Starter ring gear, Synthetic oil, Tappet, Timing belt, Timing mark, Top dead centre, Underdrive pulleys, Valve float, Variable valve timing
Interior equipment Instruments Backup camera, Boost gauge, Buzzer, Car computer, Carputer, Fuel gauge, Global Positioning System and Navigation system,Head-Up Display, Idiot light, Malfunction Indicator Lamp, Night vision, Odometer, Speedometer, Tachometer, Trip computer
Controls Bowden cable, Cruise control (speed control), Electronic throttle control, Gear stick, Hand brake, Manettino dial, Steering wheel, Throttle,
Motor vehicle theft deterrence Key, car alarm, ESITrack, Immobiliser, Klaxon, Vehicle tracking system, VIN etching
Passenger safety & seating Airbag, Armrest, Automatic seatbelt, Bench seat, Bucket seat, Child safety lock, Dicky seat, Passive safety, Rumble seat, Seat belt
Other Air conditioning, Ancillary power, Car audio, Car phone, Center console, Dashboard, Glove compartment, Motorola connector, Power window, Rear-view mirror
Powertrain Wheels and Tires All-terrain tire, Bias-ply tire, Contact patch, Custom wheel, Drive wheel, Hubcap, Magnesium alloy wheel, Mud-terrain tyre, Paddle tires, Radial tire, Rostyle wheel, Run flat tire, Schrader valve, Slick tire, Spinner, Tire code, Tire Pressure Monitoring System, Tread, Treadwear rating, Whitewall tire, Wire wheels
Transmission Automatic transmission, Clutch, Continuously variable transmission, Differential, Driveshaft, Electrorheological clutch, Epicyclic gearing, Fluid coupling, Fully-automatic transmission, Gear stick, Gearbox, Hydramatic, Limited slip differential, Locking differential, Manual transmission, Roto Hydramatic, Saxomat, Semi-automatic transmission, Semi-automatic transmission, Super Turbine 300, Tiptronic Torque converter, Transmission (mechanics), Transmission Control Unit, Turbo-Hydramatic, Universal joint
Steering Ackermann steering geometry, Anti-lock braking system, Camber angle, Car handling, Caster angle, Oversteer, Power steering, Rack and pinion, Toe angle, Torque steering, Understeer
Suspension Axle, Beam axle, Coil spring, De Dion tube, Double wishbone, Electronic Stability Control, Hydragas, Hydrolastic, Hydropneumatic suspension, Independent suspension, Kingpin, Leaf spring, Live axle, MacPherson strut, Multi-link suspension, Panhard rod, Semi-trailing arm suspension, Shock absorber, Sway bar, Swing axle, Torsion beam suspension, Transaxle, Trailing arm, Unsprung weight, Watt's linkage, Wishbone suspension
Brakes Anti-lock braking system, Disc brake, Drum brake, Hand brake, Hydraulic brake, Inboard brake, Brake lining, Brake fade, Brake fluid, Hydraulic fluid, Brake bleeding, Engine braking, Electronic brakeforce distribution, Regenerative brake

See also

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  13. ^ Past projects, NavLab.
  14. ^ DARPA Urban Challenge.
  15. ^ World report on road traffic injury prevention.
  16. ^ Le fardier de Cugnot.
  17. ^
  18. ^ CityStreets - Bliss plaque.
  19. ^ - NHTSA.
  20. ^ Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

External links