Automobiles are vehicles that carry people and cargo over roads and other surfaces, such as water, air, underground, snow, and more. They can be powered by electricity, gasoline, steam, or a combination of both. They can be built in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Typically, they are designed to be affordable for the average person. Automobiles are also available in a variety of colors and styles to meet individual tastes.

The automobile revolutionized many aspects of life in the twentieth century. It ushered in a new culture of consumerism, and it became one of the nation’s biggest employers. It was the backbone of a new economy and an important consumer of steel, petroleum, and other industrial products. It was a force for change, as it transformed society from an urban to a suburban one and facilitated a rapid expansion of the American city.

Exactly who invented the automobile remains a matter of dispute. Credit usually goes to Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, or Nicolaus Otto in Germany or Emile Levassor in France, but Henry Ford was responsible for mass production. His assembly line was the key to making cars affordable and accessible, and he introduced the concept of personal transportation in America. As a result, modern life has been virtually inconceivable—or at least highly inconvenient—without access to a car.

By opening up new worlds, the automobile allowed family vacations to rediscover pristine landscapes, allowing children to expand their social circles beyond school friends and classmates. It gave teenagers independence and the freedom to go anywhere they wanted, and it brought dating couples closer together than ever before. It was even a social force in itself, as drivers fought to improve traffic flow and demanded licensing and safety regulations.

But the automobile was not without its drawbacks. Its speed and power made it dangerous to the pedestrians on the sidewalks, as well as its propensity for causing accidents. Its pollution contributed to a drain on dwindling world oil reserves. And its higher-than-average unit profits for auto manufacturers encouraged nonfunctional styling at the expense of quality, function, and safety.

The automobile continues to be a significant force in American society. But the days of its progressive influence may be waning as new forces are poised to take their place. Whether the future is driven by electronic media, lasers, or robots, the automobile will remain an important part of the transportation industry.