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

An automobile 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 between one and six people, typically have four wheels and be constructed principally for the transport of people rather than goods. However, the term is far from precise.

The term automobile is derived from Greek auto- ("self") and Latin mobilis ("movable"), referring to the fact that it "moves by itself". Earlier terms for automobile include motorwagon (from the German name "Motorwagen",) and horseless carriage. Although the term "car" is presumed to be derived through the shortening of the term "carriage", the word has its origin before 1300 A.D. in English as, "carr"—derived from similar words in French and much earlier Greek words—for a vehicle that moves, especially on wheels, that was applied to chariots, small carts, and later—to carriages that carried more people and larger loads. Note, therefore, that carriage and chariot come from the same root as car, which in a sense predates them. As of 2002 there were 590 million passenger cars worldwide (roughly one car for every eleven people), of which 140 million in the U.S. (roughly one car for every two people) [1].


An automobile powered by the Otto gasoline engine was invented in Germany by Karl Benz in 1885. Benz was granted a patent dated 29 January, 1886 in Mannheim for that automobile. Even though Benz is credited with the invention of the modern automobile, several other German engineers worked on building automobiles at the same time. In 1886, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach in Stuttgart patented the first motor bike, built and tested in 1885, and in 1886 they built a converted horse-drawn stagecoach. In 1870, German-Austrian inventor Siegfried Marcus assembled a motorized handcart, though Marcus' vehicle did not go beyond the experimental stage.

Automobile history eras
1890s 1900s 1910s 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
Veteran Brass or Edwardian Vintage Pre-War Post-War Modern

Internal combustion engine powered vehicles

Animation of a 4-stroke overhead-cam internal combustion engine

In 1806 François Isaac de Rivaz, a Swiss, designed the first internal combustion engine (sometimes abbreviated "ICE" today). He subsequently used it to develop the world's first vehicle to run on such an engine that used a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen to generate energy. The design was not very successful, as was the case with the British inventor, Samuel Brown, and the American inventor, Samuel Morey, who produced vehicles powered by clumsy internal combustion engines about 1826.

Etienne Lenoir produced the first successful stationary internal combustion engine in 1860, and within a few years, about four hundred were in operation in Paris. About 1863, Lenoir installed his engine in a vehicle. It seems to have been powered by city lighting-gas in bottles, and was said by Lenoir to have "travelled more slowly than a man could walk, with breakdowns being frequent." Lenoir, in his patent of 1860, included the provision of a carburettor, so liquid fuel could be substituted for gas, particularly for mobile purposes in vehicles. Lenoir is said to have tested liquid fuel, such as alcohol, in his stationary engines; but it does not appear that he used them in his own vehicle. If he did, he most certainly did not use gasoline, as this was not well-known and was considered a waste product.

The next innovation occurred in the late 1860s, with Siegfried Marcus, a German working in Vienna, Austria. He developed the idea of using gasoline as a fuel in a two-stroke internal combustion engine. In 1870, using a simple handcart, he built a crude vehicle with no seats, steering, or brakes, but it was remarkable for one reason: it was the world's first vehicle using an internal combustion engine fueled by gasoline. It was tested in Vienna in September of 1870 and put aside. In 1888 or 1889, he built a second automobile, this one with seats, brakes, and steering, and included a four-stroke engine of his own design. That design may have been tested in 1890. Although he held patents for many inventions, he never applied for patents for either design in this category.

The four-stroke engine already had been documented and a patent was applied for in 1862 by the Frenchman Beau de Rochas in a long-winded and rambling pamphlet. He printed about three hundred copies of his pamphlet and they were distributed in Paris, but nothing came of this, with the patent application expiring soon afterward and the pamphlet disappearing into obscurity.

Most historians agree that Nikolaus Otto of Germany built the world's first four-stroke engine although his patent was voided. He knew nothing of Beau de Rochas's patent or idea, and invented the concept independently. In fact, he began thinking about the concept in 1861, but abandoned it until the mid-1870s.

In 1883, Edouard Delamare-Deboutteville and Leon Malandin of France installed an internal combustion engine powered by a tank of city gas on a tricycle. As they tested the vehicle, the tank hose came loose, resulting in an explosion. In 1884, Delamare-Deboutteville and Malandin built and patented a second vehicle. This one consisted of two four-stroke, liquid-fueled engines mounted on an old four-wheeled horse cart. The patent, and presumably the vehicle, contained many innovations, some of which would not be used for decades. However, during the vehicle's first test, the frame broke apart, the vehicle literally "shaking itself to pieces," in Malandin's own words. No more vehicles were built by the two men. Their venture went completely unnoticed and their patent unexploited. Knowledge of the vehicles and their experiments was obscured until years later.

Production of automobiles begins

Karl Benz
Replica of the Benz Patent Motorwagen built in 1886

Internal combustion engine automobiles were first produced in Germany by Karl Benz in 1885-1886, and Gottlieb Daimler between 1886-1889.

Karl Benz began to work on new engine patents in 1878. At first he concentrated on creating a reliable two-stroke gas engine, based on Nikolaus Otto's design of the four-stroke engine. A patent on the design by Otto had been declared void. Benz finished his engine on New Year's Eve and was granted a patent for it in 1879. Benz built his first three-wheeled automobile in 1885 and it was granted a patent in Mannheim, dated January of 1886. This was the first automobile designed and built as such, rather than a converted carriage, boat, or cart. Among other items Benz invented are the speed regulation system known also as an accelerator, ignition using sparks from a battery, the spark plug, the clutch, the gear shift, and the water radiator. He built improved versions in 1886 and 1887 and went into production in 1888: the world's first automobile production. His wife, Bertha, made significant suggestions for innovation that he included in that model. Approximately twenty-five 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.

In 1886 Gottlieb Daimler fitted a horse carriage with his four-stroke engine. In 1889, he built two vehicles from scratch as automobiles, with several innovations. From 1890 to 1895 about thirty 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. Daimler died in 1900. During the First World War, Benz suggested a co-operative effort between the two companies, but it was not until 1926 that the they united under the name of Daimler-Benz with a commitment to remain together under that name until the year 2000.

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. They were inspired by Daimler's Stahlradwagen of 1889, which was exhibited in Paris in 1889.

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. Selden did not build an automobile until 1905, when he was forced to do so, due to a lawsuit threatening the legality of his patent because the subject had never been built. After building the 1877 design in 1905, Selden received his patent and later sued the Ford Motor Company for infringing upon his patent. Henry Ford was notorious for opposing the American patent system and Selden's case against Ford went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Ford, and anyone else, was free to build automobiles without paying royalties to Selden, since automobile technology had improved so significantly since the design of Selden's patent, that no one was building according to his early designs.

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. One of the major problems was the poor state of the road network. Santler from Malvern is recognised by the Veteran Car Club of Great Britain as having made the first petrol powered car in the country in 1894 followed by Frederick William Lanchester in 1895 but these were both one-offs. The first production vehicles came from the Daimler Motor Company founded in 1896 and making their first cars made in 1897.


Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a French inventor, is credited for having built the world's first self-propelled mechanical vehicle or automobile in 1765. The first automobile patent in the United States was granted to Oliver Evans in 1789 for his "Amphibious Digger". It was a harbor dredge scow designed to be powered by a steam engine and he built wheels to attach to the bow. In 1804 Evans demonstrated his first successful self-propelled vehicle, which not only was the first automobile in the US but was also the first amphibious vehicle, as his steam-powered vehicle was able to travel on wheels on land as he demonstrated once, and via a paddle wheel in the water. It was not successful and eventually was sold as spare parts.

The Benz Motorwagen, built in 1885, was patented on 29 January 1886 by Karl Benz as the first automobile powered by an internal combustion engine. In 1888, a major breakthrough came with the historic drive of Bertha Benz. She drove an automobile that her husband had built for a distance of more than 106 km (i.e. - approximately 65 miles). This event demonstrated the practical usefulness of the automobile and gained wide publicity, which was the promotion she thought was needed to advance the invention. The Benz vehicle was the first automobile put into production and sold commercially. Bertha Benz's historic drive is celebrated as an annual holiday in Germany with rallies of antique automobiles.

In 1892 Rudolf Diesel gets a patent for a "New Rational Combustion Engine" by modifying the Carnot Cycle. And in 1897 he builds the first Diesel Engine.

On 5 November 1895, George B. Selden was granted a United States patent for a two-stroke automobile engine (Template:US patent). 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.

Ransom E. Olds, the creator of the first automobile assembly line

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.

Model changeover and design change

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 firm, 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.

Production statistics

In 2005, 63 million cars and light trucks were produced worldwide.

Top 15 Motor Vehicle Producing Countries 2005
Car and Light Commercial Vehicle Production (1,000 units)
1,000 2,000 3,000 4,000 5,000 6,000 7,000 8,000 9,000 10,000 11,000 12,000
United States 11,524
Japan 10,064
Germany 5,543
China 5,067
South Korea 3,657
France 3,495
Spain 2,677
Canada 2,624
Brazil 2,375
United Kingdom 1,783
Mexico 1,607
India 1,406
Russia 1,264
Thailand 1,110
Italy 995

Large free trade areas like EU, NAFTA and MERCOSUR attract manufacturers worldwide to produce their products within them reducing currency risks and customs controls and additionally being close to their customers. Thus the production figures do not show the technological ability or business skill of the areas. In fact much, if not most, of Third World countries car production uses Western technology and car models and sometimes complete Western factories are shipped to such countries. This is reflected in patent statistics as well as the location of R&D centers.

The automobile industry is dominated by relatively few large corporations (not to be confused with the much more numerous brands), the biggest of which (by numbers of cars produced) are currently General Motors, Toyota and Ford Motor Company. It is expected that Toyota will reach the No.1 position in 2006. The most profitable per-unit car-maker of recent years has been Porsche due to its premium price tag.

Top 15 Motor Vehicle Manufacturing Companies 2005
Car and Light Commercial Vehicle Production (1,000 units)
1,000 2,000 3,000 4,000 5,000 6,000 7,000 8,000 9,000 10,000
General Motors 9,040
Toyota 7,100
Ford 6,418
Volkswagen Group 5,173
DaimlerChrysler 4,319
PSA Peugeot Citroën 3,375
Honda 3,373
Nissan 3,348
Hyundai-Kia 2,853
Renault-Dacia-Samsung 2,617
Suzuki-Maruti 2,072
Fiat 1,934
Mitsubishi 1,327
BMW 1,323
Mazda 1,285
Total global production: 67,265

Future of the car

The hydrogen powered FCHV (Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle) was developed by Toyota in 2005

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

Relatively high transportation fuel prices do not significantly reduce car usage but do make it more expensive. 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 and the development of alternative fuels. At the beginning of 2006, 1 liter of gasoline cost approximately $0.60 USD in the United States and in Germany and other European countries nearly $1.80 USD. With fuel prices at these levels there is a strong incentive for consumers to purchase lighter, smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Greenpeace, however, demonstrated with the highly fuel efficient SmILE that car manufacturers aren't delivering what they could and thus not supplying for any such demand. Nevertheless, individual mobility is highly prized in modern societies so the demand for automobiles is inelastic. Alternative individual modes of transport, such as Personal rapid transit, could serve a an alternative to automobiles if they prove to be cheaper and more energy efficient.

Lexus LF-A concept car at the 2006 Greater Los Angeles Auto Show

Electric cars operate a complex drivetrain and transmission would not be needed. However, despite this the electric car is held back by battery technology - a cell with comparable energy density to a tank of liquid fuel is a long way off, and there is no infrastructure in place to support it. A more practical approach may be to use a smaller internal combustion (IC) engine to drive a generator- this approach can be much more efficient since the IC engine can be run at a single speed, use cheaper fuel such as diesel, and drop the heavy, power wasting drivetrain. Such an approach has worked very well for railway locomotives, but so far has not been scaled down for car use.

Alternative technologies

The Henney Kilowatt, the first modern (transistor-controlled) electric car.

Increasing costs of oil-based fuels and tightening environmental laws with the possibility of further restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions are propelling work on alternative power systems for automobiles.

Many diesel-powered cars can run with little or no modifications on 100% pure biodiesel. The main benefit of Diesel combustion engines is its 50% fuel burn efficiency compared with 23% in the best gasoline engines. Most modern gasoline engines are capable of running with up to 15% ethanol mixed into the gasoline fuel - older vehicles may have seals and hoses that could 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 using vehicles that must be started on pure gasoline and switched over to ethanol once the engine is running. Most gasoline fuelled cars can also run on LPG with the addition of a heavy propane tank for fuel storage and carburation modifications to heat the liquid to its boiling point before injection into the engine to avoid carburettor icing. LPG produces non-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, prior to combustion engine automobiles, nevertheless attempts at building viable, modern battery-powered electric vehicle began with the introduction of the first modern (transistor controlled) electric car.

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.

Alternative forms of combustion such as Gasoline Direct Injection (GDI) are starting to appear in production vehicles. GDI is employed in the 2007 BMW MINI.


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.


Automobile accidents are almost as old as automobiles themselves. Joseph Cugnot crashed his steam-powered "Fardier" against a wall in 1771. One of the earliest recorded automobile fatalities was Mary Ward, on August-31, 1869 in Parsonstown, Ireland, an early victim in the United States was Henry Bliss on 1899-09-13 in New York City, NY.

Cars have two basic safety problems: They have human drivers who make mistakes, and the wheels lose traction when braking or turning forces are close to a half gravity.

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 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.

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.

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

Despite technological advances, there is still significant loss of life from car accidents: About 40,000 people die every year in the U.S., 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 32G 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.

Economics and societal impact

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. Additionally, there are indirect societal costs such as the costs of maintaining roads and other infrastructure, pollution, health care costs due to accidents and the cost of finally desposing of the vehicle at the end of it's 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.

Further reading

See also

References and further reading