Few inventions have had as great an impact on the world as the automobile. The first Canadian automobile, built in 1867 by Henry Seth Taylor, was regarded as a novelty, as were the single-cylinder vehicles that were imported from the US in 1898. In 1904 Canada's automotive industry began with the establishment of Ford Motor Company of Canada, Ltd. By 1913 there were some 50 000 motor vehicles in Canada; between 1918 and 1923, Canada became the world's second largest vehicle producer and a major exporter of automobiles and auto parts.

Today, Canada is the eighth largest auto producer in the world and the third largest exporter, after Japan and the US. More than 80% of Canadian-made cars are exported. The automotive industry is the largest manufacturing sector in Canada, representing 12 % of manufacturing GDP and 24 % of manufacturing trade. Canada's annual exports of automobiles and auto parts exceed $65 billion and $30 billion respectively. With one of the world's highest ratios of automobiles to inhabitants, Canada is often regarded as automobile-dependent. Canada has more than 33 million people and more than 18 million registered automobiles, of which more than 75% are private cars.

Early automobiles were used by the wealthy for racing and amusement. Although these vehicles had engines, they truly were "horseless carriages" - little more than lightweight buggies with motive power. They were unreliable, expensive and sometimes dangerous. The earliest automobiles were hand-made and sometimes built to order. Ransom Olds conceived the idea of interchangeable components, which made assembly-line production possible. By thus reducing costs, the automobile was made available to many customers for whom the price had previously been too high

As automobile sales increased, so did production. Detroit, Michigan, which became the automotive centre of the world and nearby Windsor, Ontario, prospered. Automobiles made it easier for people to travel, enabled salesmen to cover more territory and encouraged travel. They allowed people to live farther from work and consequently had a profound effect on urban design. Automobiles created the demand for more streets, highways and freeways. They soon spawned service stations, garages, insurance underwriters and numerous other types of services. Today the automobile, together with its suppliers, infrastructure and supporting industries, represents an important component of the economy, notably the construction industry. Transport consumes about half of all the petroleum used in Canada, and automobiles take half of that quantity - as much as all of the other modes of transport combined.

The enormous impact of the automobile has not been without costs. Roads, highways and freeways require land that might otherwise be used for housing, parks or agriculture. Concern over the loss of land to the automobile has led to pressures by environmental groups. Their pressures resulted in the cancellation of plans to build the Spadina Expressway in Toronto and plans to expand highways in national parks in the West. However, it is often the poor use of lands for roadways that is the real problem; traffic congestion due to inadequate roads results in higher levels of vehicle emissions. Motor vehicles account for approximately one-eighth of the greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

Each year Canadian cars produce millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, various particulates and other types of gas. They contribute to the smog that plagues many Canadian communities (see Air Pollution; Pollution) and contribute to global warming. Researchers and environmentalists have been seeking solutions for decades. The first auto emission controls were established in the 1970s, and since then the release of toxic substances into the air by cars has decreased. Automobile fuel no longer contains lead and emission control equipment is now mandatory. National air quality standards were established by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), which was first enacted in 1988 and amended in 1999, with CEPA 1999 coming into force on 31 Mar 2000. It is the primary federal statute dealing with the environment. The main objective of environmental legislation is to reduce the contribution of vehicles and engines to air pollution in Canada by developing and regulating emission performance standards for vehicles, engines and equipment manufactured in Canada and imported into Canada. The CEPA provides for the adoption of emission regulations from other countries, including those in the United States, which are the most stringent. This approach allows harmonized products in North America and combined environmental and economic benefits.

Federal initiatives to curb vehicle emissions include Transport Canada's ecoTECHNOLOGY for Vehicles Program, which is designed to educate Canadians about advanced environmental vehicle technologies and their benefits, and to help them make informed decisions about purchasing cleaner vehicles. Advanced technologies will be significant in helping the auto industry to achieve the 5.3 megatonne reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions from light duty vehicles in Canada. The industry has agreed to pursue this target under a voluntary agreement with the government to be met by 2010, following which new fuel consumption regulations will come into effect for the 2011 model year.

Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of death among Canadians. All provinces have passed legislation that makes the use of seat belts and child restraint systems compulsory. In the 1990s, motor vehicle safety features began to include air bags. Although safety legislation and initiatives have been met with scepticism and generated much debate, surveys of their efficacy have shown significant reductions in death and injury through their proper use. The introduction of air bags in light duty vehicles prompted an extensive survey that showed that between 1990 and 2000, seat belts saved a total of 11 690 lives and air bags saved 313, according to Transport Canada. The first seat belt legislation in Canada was passed in 1988. The number of traffic fatalities across the country decreased from 4283 in 1987 to 2889 in 2006. Today, most Canadians drive automobiles that are powered by gasoline or diesel fuel. Hybrid vehicles, which use a combination of electricity and gasoline, are becoming more popular. Some vehicles are powered by propane, liquified natural gas and other petroleum products, but their availability is limited in some areas.

See also Automobile Associations.