Automobiles are wheeled passenger vehicles that run primarily on roads, have seating for one to six people, and have an internal combustion engine fuelled most commonly by gasoline (a liquid petroleum product). They are considered motor vehicles and are classified according to their size, layout, drive system, propulsion, and whether they are powered by electricity or fossil fuels. The automobile has shaped life in modern times as few inventions have, and it seems almost impossible to imagine living without access to one. Its ubiquity has changed the shape of urban design, and it has transformed social and recreational activities by enabling travel long distances in a matter of hours, connecting cities, towns, and rural areas with new possibilities for shopping, vacation trips, and business meetings. In the United States alone, the automobile logs over three trillion miles (five trillion kilometres) annually.
The scientific and technical building blocks for the modern automobile date back several hundred years. In the late 1600s, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens invented a type of internal combustion engine fueled by gunpowder.
Karl Benz and others perfected the automobile in Germany and France by 1885, but Henry Ford’s industrial manufacturing techniques allowed him to produce a Model T for the general public. Ford’s use of assembly lines and standardization reduced the price of the car to a level that could be affordable for middle-class Americans. The automobile became a major force in American society as it emerged as the heart of a consumer goods-oriented economy and a main customer of steel and petroleum industries.