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Automobiles are vehicles that carry a driver and passengers, usually for personal transportation. Modern automobiles are usually powered by an internal combustion engine that burns a volatile fuel, often gasoline. Automobiles have become an important part of contemporary civilization. They are used for commuting, recreational activities and for the delivery of goods. Automobile technology, safety features and design have evolved over time.

The first automobile was a steam-powered vehicle invented by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot of France in 1769. It was heavy and moved slowly, but it was a revolutionary invention because it allowed people to travel without relying on others for transportation.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, manufacturers began producing electric cars that were lighter and ran more smoothly than their steam-powered counterparts. However, the batteries required periodic recharge and the cars had limited speed capabilities. Henry Ford innovated mass production techniques in the 1920s and revolutionized the industry, allowing consumers to buy automobiles at affordable prices. By the 1940s, automobiles were commonplace in America, with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler becoming the largest automakers.

After World War II, the automobile became an integral part of global trade and culture. Manufacturers consolidated their market share and introduced many new models. Today, there are more than 1.4 billion automobiles in operation worldwide. Most are passenger cars that carry two or more occupants, but trucks, vans and buses also are produced.

The modern automobile is a complex technical system that incorporates thousands of subsystems with specific design functions. Many of these systems are driven by breakthroughs in other technologies, such as electronic computers and high-strength plastics or alloys of steel and nonferrous metals. Other systems, such as the internal combustion engine, are based on proven technology that has been refined over a century by many inventors and engineers.

Unlike most other manufactured goods, the automotive industry is heavily influenced by marketing plans and customer feedback. For example, some manufacturers offer different car models in different price ranges to appeal to a wide variety of consumers. Moreover, manufacturers have frequently re-invented automobile components that already existed. For instance, front-wheel drive was reintroduced by Andre Citroen in 1934 in the Model T, but had previously been developed in road and racing cars by Alvis and Cord, and in bicycles by Miller. As the number of automobiles in use increased, the demand for specialized tires and rubberized road surfaces exploded. New industries sprang up to supply these needs. The automobile also spurred economic development by providing workers with more income and by enabling families to purchase additional homes. It also provided people with more freedom and independence, compared to those who depended on public transport to get around. The car is now the most popular form of personal transportation in the world. It is estimated that more than three trillion miles (five trillion kilometers) are traveled by passenger cars every year. This figure is expected to increase significantly over the next several decades.

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