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An automobile, usually called a car (an old word for carriage), is a wheeled, self-powered vehicle, meaning it carries its own engine. (An older term is motorcar, meaning motorised carriage.). It has seats for the driver and often ca. three passengers.

The vehicle is designed to travel on roads, although some, notably SUVs, allow off-road driving. Roads are shared with other traffic; some roads, such as highways, are shared with motorcycles only.

The typical vehicle has just an internal combustion engine and four wheels, although as of 2002 gas-electric hybrid engine powered cars have begun to enter the market. Three-wheeled automobiles have been built, but are not common due to stability problems.

Automobiles/cars come in configurations such as

The first vehicles were steam engine powered, then electric. Later on gasoline (petrol) and diesel engines were implemented.

While steam-powered vehicles were devised as the late 18th century, it is generally claimed that the first automobiles or cars with an internal combustion engine were completed almost simultaneously in 1886 by two German inventors working independently, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz. The large scale, production-line manufacturing of affordable automobiles was developed by Henry Ford in the 1910s. Early automobiles were often referred to as 'horseless carriages', which gives some idea of their design.

Alternative fuels for the gasoline (or petrol) engine have been around for many years. During World War II, coal gas was used. Methanol and ethanol (alcohols) are used as petrol extenders in some countries, notably in Queensland, Australia. Methanol is often used as a fuel for high performance racing cars.

In countries such as Italy and New Zealand, plentiful supplies of natural gas have seen methane sold as compressed natural gas (CNG) and butane sold as liquified petroleum gas (LPG) along side petrol and diesel fuels since the 1970s. While a standard automotive engine will run on these fuels, there are some performance differences, notably a loss of power, due to the slower combustion of the alternative fuels. The power loss can often be reduced or eliminated by retuning the engine ignition, or fitting an electronic dual fuel ignition system that compensates for the slower burning fuel. The need to equip filling stations and vehicles with pressure vessels to hold these gaseous fuels and the more stringent safety inspections means that they are only economical in high mileage vehicles or if there are installation incentives. They are most economical where petrol has high taxes and the alternative fuels do not.

The many varieties of automobile racing (also called motorcar racing) collectively constitute one of the most popular categories of sport in the world.

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Major Possible Subsystems of a standard Automobile


Every year thousands of people are killed in traffic, often under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, either by crashing into something, or by being crashed into. Special safety features have been built into cars for years (some for the safety of the people in the car only, some for the safety on the road in general):

  • ABS, Anti-lock Braking System, which prevents the car from skidding
  • Airbags, which inflate in a crash to cushion the blow of a head on the dashboard
  • crumple zones, which buffers the impact when the car hits something
  • safety belts[?], which keep a person from being thrown forward
  • cage construction

There are standard tests for safety in news automobiles, like the EuroNCAP[?].

Renewable Energies and Future

With heavy taxes on fuel, particularly in Europe, tightening environmental laws in the United States, particularly in California, and the possibility of further restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, work on alternative power systems for vehicles continues.

Nowadays petroleum cars can use 100% pure biodiesel, a fuel made from vegetable oils.

Attempts at building viable battery-powered electric vehicles continued throughout the 1990s (notably General Motors with the EV1[?]), but cost, speed and inferior driving range made them unviable.

Current research and development is centred on "hybrid" vehicles that use both electric and combustion (pollution) power, and longer-term efforts are based around electric vehicles powered by fuel cells.

Other alternatives being explored involve methane and hydrogen-burning vehicles, and even the stored energy of compressed air (see Air Engine).


Car-pooling is shared use of a car, in particular for going to work, often by people who each have a car but travel together to save costs. Also there are sometimes special facilities such as car-pool lanes, specially for cars with multiple riders.

See List of automobiles

See also armored car, tank, two-stroke cycle, four-stroke cycle, diesel cycle, Miller cycle, future of the car, flying car, rotary engine (Wankel), urban car, road, traffic law[?], parking meter, parking ramp.

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