We took the Great American Road Trip—in electric cars

A cross-country journey in electric cars reveals how alternative energy sources could help power us into a sustainable future.

Tail fins point into the rain at the Cadillac Ranch RV Park in Amarillo, Texas. For a century the automobile has been an American totem. But with well over a billion vehicles worldwide now fueling climate change, the internal combustion engine faces a reckoning.
Photograph by David Guttenfelder

On a weathered promenade at the edge of the Pacific, near the photo booths and the pretzel stand and a man molding busts of tourists out of clay, spins a Ferris wheel that draws electricity from the sun. A few hundred feet away, a sign marks the end of old Route 66. The Santa Monica Pier, where green energy meets automotive history, seemed like the perfect spot to kick off a cross-country road trip in electric cars.

Route 66, one of America’s first all-weather highways, began in Chicago. From the 1930s until it was rendered obsolete by interstates, it funneled millions of Midwestern migrants past motor lodges and trinket shops toward the sparkling shores of California. It helped reshape that state from a rural paradise to a series of sprawling cities. Along the way it came to symbolize so much: the transformational power of cars, the freedom of the open road, the magic of combining the two in a road trip. Today Americana-hungry travelers, after rolling through more than 2,200 miles of old 66, line up at a wooden hut on the Santa Monica Pier for signed certificates.

The pier is also a good place to reflect on the world we’ve created, in part through our love affair with the internal combustion engine. To the east lies Los Angeles with its seven million gas-guzzlers, which emit more carbon dioxide than a dozen states. To the south there’s Venice Beach, which in the 1940s was crowded with oil derricks—and where in recent years starving sea lions washed ashore, victims of ocean heat waves worsened by climate change. To the west and north lie Malibu and the hills above it, where the Woolsey fire raged in November 2018, after years of drought and rising temperatures. The blaze killed three people, forced a quarter million to evacuate, and destroyed 1,075 homes.

More from this issue

Why we won’t avoid a climate catastrophe
Why we’ll succeed in saving the planet from climate change
As climate change alters beloved landscapes, we feel the loss

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet