Automobiles are the most common form of transportation worldwide. There are more than 590 million cars in operation, with 140 million of them in the United States alone. Modern automobiles are complex technical systems that have evolved through many breakthroughs in a variety of areas, such as electronic computers, high-strength plastics and new alloys of steel and nonferrous metals. Today, many of the world’s largest manufacturers produce hundreds of models to cater to specific consumer needs, such as sporty handling or hundreds of horsepower.
Automobiles have become one of the most important inventions in history, changing everyday life in ways that would be impossible or highly inconvenient without them. They allow people to live in places that they could not reach on foot, making it possible for a single person to work at several jobs or even start their own business. They also enable people to cover large distances in relative comfort and safety compared with traveling on foot or in public transport, such as buses or trains.
The scientific and technical building blocks of the modern automobile date back several hundred years. The first motorcars were run by steam, electric power or gasoline. By the end of the 19th century, though, the internal combustion engine powered by a volatile fuel had come to dominate the industry.
The 1901 Mercedes, designed by Wilhelm Maybach for Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, can be considered the first modern automobile in all respects. Its compact, light weight three-horsepower, one-cylinder, tiller-steered design made it affordable to middle-class Americans and led the way to the production methods that revolutionized industrial manufacturing in the 1910s, as exemplified by Ransom E. Olds’s successful 1904 Oldsmobile, a one-cylinder, three-horsepower model that cost only $650.