The car of the future will require the city of the future to change dramatically, too. We can’t simply swap out minivans for self-driving solar pods, pick-ups for electric three-wheeled rockets. America has spent decades building a vast infrastructure for the internal-combustion car, and we’ll have to change all of that, too.
This will mean rethinking a lot of things: roads, intersections, parking garages. But first and foremost, we’re talking about the gas-guzzling vehicle’s essential companion: the lowly but omnipresent gas station. As of 2008, according to the Census Bureau, we had 116,855 of them in America. That’s one gas station for every 2,500 people (although there are usually none per 2,500 people in the neighborhoods where you really need one, right this second).
To put it visually, here's what the area between Los Angeles and Long Beach looks like, covered chicken-pox like, when you want to find a gas station on Google Maps:
All of this is to say that in an environmental paradise where even Sarah Palin drives a Prius, we’ll have to re-imagine one of the most basic elements of our urban fabric. Will most people just charge their EVs at home? If so, will we need quite as many fueling stops for alternative-fuel vehicles as we have today for the gas-hungry kind? What will gas stations looks like when they no longer dispense gas? (When we won't, obviously, be calling them “gas stations” any more.)
These are real questions for engineers trying to figure out how to deploy next-generation vehicles to a buying public that doesn’t yet know how and where to service them. In an EV future, what should come first, affordable cars on dealer lots, or the charging infrastructure needed to drive them? And what do we do with these 116,855 gas stations we've already built?
We got to thinking about these questions thanks to Steven M. Johnson, a former urban planner and mad-scientist/illustrator (for more on that job description, The Atlantic profiled him last year). Johnson was asked by GE’s web magazine Txchnologist to envision the future of the gas station, and his ideas are just the right kind of whimsy to get this discussion going.
All of Johnson’s proposals are grounded in technology researchers are actually working on (flying robots, algae biofuels, food grease for fuel). But, as Matthew Van Dusen writes, Johnson "synthesizes our dreams of unlimited consumption and unrestrained mobility and reveals the absurdity that lies at their core."
Above is his vision for a roadside restaurant that feeds greasy food to diners and grease right into their cars. And below is his idea for a biodiesel filling station (complete with algae-powered car wash?).
You can check out the rest of his sketches here, and begin pondering which one of these things you’d want on every third corner in your neighborhood.