Changing Planet

Hybrid? Full Electric? Inside Tomorrow’s Cars

It was an ironic twist that bottlenecked Los Angeles freeways kept me from getting to the L.A. Auto Show to check out some cars of the future. Ideally, they’re ones that will get better mileage, prevent more accidents, and leave a smaller footprint on the planet. So instead I steered over to the Hollywood Hills, where I caught up with Tara Weingarten. She’s editor-in-chief of the automotive news website VroomGirls, which makes car news a little more female friendly (an innovative idea in itself). I asked Weingarten about some of the industry’s current bright spots. And what’s coming next?

Hybrids finally seem to be taking root. Have they gone mainstream?
Yes, I think that’s exactly the trend. Hybrid cars like the Prius are doing very well in California. And as California goes, so goes the nation, at least automotively. Detroit has a long way to go to catch up to the Prius, in terms of how many hybrids domestic manufacturers are selling. Alternatively, I saw you’re driving the Jetta Hybrid. Whoever thought Volkswagen would come out with hybrid technology, since the company has always favored diesel? And it’s great. Now BMW has a few hybrids, too. I think we’re going to see more and more models like these.

The wheels behind the Change Reaction road trip of California.

What improvements are needed to make electric cars more ubiquitous on the road?
Full-on electric will continue to come no matter what. They’ll need to have a range that matches what a car company has. A normal gas-powered car has a range of 300 to 350 miles. Now, some of these electric car models have a range of about 75 on a single charge. The car makers will need to push that number up.

Can hydrogen and fuel cell technology be a game- changer?
With hydrogen, it’s really interesting technology. But until now, it’s been a marketing ploy. They haul out these test vehicles and say “Check this out, isn’t it great?” But then you have to ask, “Okay, can you make more than three of them?” BMW has done a heck of a job marketing their hydrogen-powered 7-series sedan. But basically it’s brought out for journalists, celebrities and high-profile early adopters to drive for a brief time. They aren’t for sale, the technology is way too expensive right now to make it a viable fuel type. We don’t see anything coming anytime soon, like in the next few decades, that’s anything more than a marketing ploy.

Let’s go inside the car. Tell me about some James Bond-style toys and improvements.
Well, companies are using more eco-friendly materials. They’re using recycled water bottles to make the dashboard and the carpets. Bamboo has made its way into a lot of vehicles. The steering wheel in the new Lexus is made of bamboo, which is an easily sustainable and renewable material. It’s pretty, too. Then there are seats made of corn husk, banana peel, and sugar cane in cars that Honda and Ford and other companies are making.

Write a haiku of your thoughts on driverless cars.
I just like to drive
No robot can drive my car
I’ll do it myself

Wow, not bad.
Let me say something else. I have a Porsche. I love to drive. But I also don’t want to kill this planet. So I’m a conflicted person and I’m probably not the only person out there who loves sports cars and the sound and feel of an internal combustion engine. I don’t mind joining the latest trend of driving an electric or a hybrid, but for people who can afford it, I’d also like to keep around my fun car as a little knock-around.

Last question: The Jetsons. How long before we’re all flying?
Ha! You know, the Nissan Leaf interior looks like it’s from the Jetsons. I think they were channeling the Jetsons when they designed it. I don’t think we’ll ever have those hovercrafts. We have too many bad drivers here on the ground. Can you imagine up in the air?

  • Annette Andre

    I thought this article interesting & helpful. I know the website & I’ve found very helpful reviews & tips there, particularly Tara Weingarten’s articles. It’s a great idea to have a website that’s usually reserved for the ‘macho’ species, but is aimed for the gentler sex.

  • Basil Chiu

    That was an interesting irony about traffic keeping you from the LA auto show.

    Will you please do a story about alternative-fueled hot rods? 1) Alternative fuels are germane to your mandate; 2) hot rods are germane to California; and 3) hot rods represent grass-roots innovation, which is a) American (in mythos), b) different from many stories of elite-driven innovation, and c) a pre-internet form of social engagement (because it is grass-roots).

    In San Francisco:

    In Santa Cruz:

  • Arthur David

    Excellent, timely review of new automotive innovations. Very informative. I’ve checked out the Vroomgirls website and am impressed. A definite recommend – and not just for women ! Well done !

  • Stew

    Electric cars do not need to go 300 miles on a charge to be useful. They can replace a large number of gasoline and diesel fueled cars, now. A significant percentage of our fleet is used for only short trips and should be replaced with pure electric vehicles. It will be great when they can travel long distances with only short stops for charging, but they are already a perfect fit for much of our transportation needs.

  • John

    96.4% of electricity in the United States comes from coal (44.9%), natural gas (23.4%), nuclear (20.3%) or hydroelectric (6.9%). All of which are considered non-green sources.

    With that in mind, how is powering an electric car, 96.4% of whose electricity comes from “dirty” sources considered a “clean” technology?

    There’s a reason only 3.6% of electricity comes from windmills and solar cells: Physics. These sources are enegry poor, inconvenient and extremely expensive compared to the alternative sources.

    Politics and wishful thinking cannot overcome physics. Can tens of billions of dollars in government spending bend the laws of physics to double the percentage of renweable sources to…7.2%? Do we need tp spend that money to provide expensive toys to rich environmentalists?

  • admiralbrown

    Kind of light story.
    Hydrogen is not a fuel source, it has to be made, it does not come out of the ground and get refined to be used. Hydrogen is to a fuel cell as electricity is to a battery. The cost of building the infrastructure and the energy needed to produce the hydrogen will keep it from ever being an option.
    The Tesla S with the 85 kW battery pack has a 300 mile range. But even that is not enough for a road trip vacation.

  • Paul Ponton

    What is emitted from Hydrogen fueled vehicles? Water vapor. This of course means more accumulation of water vapor in the atmosphere. While we (more specifically industry) are passing this off as a solution from climate change due to GHG emissions, the emission of water vapor could of course alter precipitation rates. More research needs to be done on how this may cause it’s own brand of climate change if this fuel source is to be pursued.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media