Automobiles are vehicles that use an engine or motor to travel over land. The term is derived from the Greek word “auto” (self) and Latin “mobilis” meaning “moving.”

Automobiles come in many shapes, sizes and for different purposes. They can be passenger cars, cargo or even special purpose vehicles like fire engines or ambulances. They may be powered by electricity, gasoline, diesel or kerosene. They can be 4-wheel drive or 2-wheel drive.

In the United States, there are more than three trillion miles (4.8 trillion kilometers) driven on automobiles each year. Automobiles have become so commonplace that they seem to be an essential part of modern life, making it almost impossible to imagine a world without them.

The scientific and technological building blocks of the automobile were laid in the late 1600s when Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens invented a type of internal combustion engine fueled by gunpowder. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the first practical, marketable cars came to be. Several types of steam-powered road vehicles were used during the early 19th century, including steam cars, steam buses and phaetons, but these had limitations such as short ranges and inconvenient starting. Electric-powered automobiles were also used in the 1890s, but they had a much lower rate of adoption than their gasoline counterparts.

Karl Benz is credited with inventing the first modern automobile, and Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry by using methods of mass production to make affordable automobiles that most Americans could afford. During the 1920s, cars powered by petroleum-based internal combustion engines were largely supplanting carriages and other horse-drawn vehicles. The development of automotive technology was rapid, with key developments including electric ignition and the electrical self-starter developed by Charles Kettering (for the Cadillac Motor Company in 1910-1911) and independent suspension.

Modern automobiles can now be found worldwide, with over 1.4 billion of them in operation as of 2017. Most families own one, and some own more than one. Automobiles are fast and more convenient than other means of transportation, especially public transport such as trains or buses. They can carry more people and luggage than bicycles or walkers, and they can go places where roads are not suitable for other wheeled transport.

Cars also allow their owners to spend more time with their families instead of spending hours each day commuting. They can make family trips to school or sports practice more convenient and allow people to live in suburban areas where jobs are farther away but where the quality of life is higher. They are a vital component of the global economy, providing mobility and freedom to millions of people. The automotive industry has also contributed to the growth of many other sectors of the global economy, including the manufacturing and service industries.