Driving While Drilling

It may have taken a near implosion to get automakers to see the error of their oversized ways, but the reign of the SUV seems finally to be coming to an end. More than a century after the first electric vehicles (EVs), we’re ready to reclaim our streets with quiet, clean electrics that are as stripped down or sexed up as you want them to be. No longer will these cars come only in $100,000 Tesla Roadster made-for-George Clooney models. Nor will hybrids only be available in the familiar flat-back Prius shape, so indicative, in either case, of a whole lifestyle. For those of us who want a car that’s super fuel-efficient, or even fuel-free, without making a major public statement, there will be plenty of electric car options by early 2011, from the small Coda sedan to the Nissan Leaf to the electric Ford Focus.

Jim Motavalli’s cover story can be considered an obituary for the internal combustion engine. And like all major transitions, this one’s not without its hurdles. First, there’s the battery issue—how to keep these cars powered over long distances without making them cost-prohibitive. Then there’s the charging station issue—where do we (especially if we live in cities) plug in? The problem of cost hikes (electrics will cost at least $15,000 more than their counterparts thanks to expensive batteries) can be solved with subsidies, at least in the short term. For the charging issue, the early EV adopters will likely be those with garages in which to charge them, with charging stations coming to cities only after the cars do. Unless you live in California, that is.

Not only is California the friendliest state for EV ownership, but as our second feature points out, it’s also the place where the environmental movement was launched, due to an oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast in 1969 that served as an unheeded warning on the dangers of offshore drilling. Jessica A. Knoblauch looks back at the outrage and flurry of action that happened in the wake of that spill—including the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But despite California having set in motion many of the country’s most progressive environmental protections, the state is not immune to the call for new drilling. Following the ongoing catastrophe of the Gulf oil spill, we revisit the likelihood of a similar spill happening on the West Coast, where some 10 billion barrels of oil are thought to be buried. We’ve got the technology to move beyond oil, but we may be lacking the political will.