The story of America’s built environment over the past century is largely a story of how we’ve accommodated the automobile. Cars have ever-increasingly shaped our cities, our homes and our foreign policy. We devote 40 percent of our urban areas to cars, in the form of roads and parking lots. In some cities the number is as high as 60 percent. Our traffic laws nominally grant pedestrians the right of way, but it’s obvious that, for traffic engineers, cars are 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.

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Read Part 2.

The story of America’s built environment over the past century is largely a story of how we’ve accommodated the automobile. Cars have ever-increasingly shaped our cities, our homes and our foreign policy. We devote 40 percent of our urban areas to cars, in the form of roads and parking lots. In some cities the number is as high as 60 percent.

Our traffic laws nominally grant pedestrians the right of way, but it’s obvious that, for traffic engineers, cars are 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 cars powered by gasoline engines alone. 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 100-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 are crumbling, brought to their knees — and deservedly so, it must be said — by apparent mismanagement and obliviousness to the need for greener transportation.

OK. 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.

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