The story of America’s built environment over the past century is one that revolves largely around the automobile. Cars have ever-increasingly shaped our cities, our homes, and our foreign policy. We devote forty percent of our urban areas to cars, in the form of roads and parking lots (in some cities the number is as high as sixty percent). Our traffic laws theoretically grant pedestrians the right of way--a pretty laughable concept, since it’s obvious that traffic engineers consider cars the real priority. And of course our insatiable national thirst for petroleum, which shapes so much of our foreign policy, is in large part due to our beloved automobiles.
Thankfully, if current developments are any indication, we’re finally reaching the beginning of the end of our auto-obsessed age. That’s not to say that cars are going away soon, if ever, nor even that they’ll look very different. But internally, they’re going to be as different from today’s noisy, fume spewing machines as a digital watch is from Big Ben.
Hybrid cars, which use a small, relatively efficient internal-combustion engine to generate electricity onboard, are already making major inroads against traditional gasoline engine-powered cars. Yet any vehicle that uses an internal-combustion engine--even just part of the time, as hybrids do--will always be inefficient. That’s why the hybrid is just a stepping stone to straight electric cars that will run on battery power alone.
Once cars go 100 percent electric, the real paradigm shift will begin. An electric-powered vehicle will be smaller on the outside, because it won’t need a bulky gasoline engine, not to mention a radiator, mechanical transmission, exhaust system, fuel tank, or differential. Once battery technology comes up to speed--and rest assured, it will--the absence of all this clunky hardware will mean that cars will be much lighter as well. These new vehicles will be the ultimate in simplicity, because power won’t be transmitted through a friction-laden drive train of pistons, cranks, and gears, but rather by electrons flowing through a piece of wire.
All this is good news for planet Earth. But if you were expecting the old guard of the American auto industry to lead this revolution, you can forget it. Just as the personal computer revolution was begun, not by corporate behemoths like IBM or Control Data, but rather by a couple of kids named Jobs and Wozniak, the automobile revolution will likewise come from some unruly fresh thinkers who are probably still shooting spitballs in a high school somewhere. Unlike the hundred-ten-year-old auto industry, they aren’t weighed down by the inertia of a huge historic investment in internal combustion technology or a lineage inextricably linked with fossil fuels.
This historic inertia is the reason once-invincible automakers like General Motors have been so humbled in the last twenty years--and deservedly so, it must be said. It was their longtime arrogance, greed, and steadfast opposition to the need for greener transportation that brought them this comeuppance.
Okay. So electric cars are inevitable. Not all the news is good, though--next time: a closer look at electrics, and why they’re “zero emissions vehicles” in name only.