It's almost inconceivable, the idea of a world without personally-owned automobiles.

But that's the startling vision proposed by noted researcher Tom Turrentine and colleagues, in a recent paper published online in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, entitled "California: Beyond cars?" (PDF).

The abstract lays it out:

Despite--or because of--California's vaunted love affair with the automobile, the state could become a leader in the development of new, climate change-friendly transport.

National Plug-In Day 2012: San Francisco, with 60 Nissan Leafs in front of the Golden Gate Bridge

National Plug-In Day 2012: San Francisco, with 60 Nissan Leafs in front of the Golden Gate Bridge

Electric cars, hybrid vehicles, plug-in electric hybrids, robotic cars, vehicles powered by natural gas or other fuels, car sharing, bike sharing, and the matching of unused vehicle space with potential passengers are just some of the ideas on the near horizon in the Golden State.

Indeed, California has been at the forefront of many automotive trends, from post-World War 2 suburban sprawl to the first regulation of vehicle emissions, long before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency even existed.

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State policies have aggressively targeted air pollution for half a century, prompted by the unfortunate geography of the Los Angeles Basin.

Prevailing winds off the Pacific Ocean trap emissions against the mountain ranges to the east, leading to the infamous smog that produced both gorgeous multicolor sunsets and sustained cardiopulmonary damage in residents.

1970s Los Angeles smog depicted in the Honda short film

1970s Los Angeles smog depicted in the Honda short film

LA no longer has such stunning sunsets, but the state continues to innovate in vehicular transport.

Its zero-emission vehicle mandate, levied by the powerful California Air Resources Board, has led more than a dozen automakers to sell at least small numbers of battery-electric vehicles in the state--first in the late 1990s, and then again starting in 2012.

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Small numbers of hydrogen fuel-cell cars will join them starting next year.

Silicon Valley, 350 miles to the north of Los Angeles, has contributed any number of software startups, from search-engine Google--now working hard on self-driving car technology--to smartphone apps for car sharing and taxi-like services.

Google Self-Driving Car Prototype

Google Self-Driving Car Prototype

So while the idea of a world in which you don't need to own your own vehicle may seem absurdly futuristic, Turrentine's paper is worth reading.

It notes that the average vehicle sits idle 23 of every 24 hours, costing its owner money and occupying storage or parking space, but otherwise not doing very much.

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If transportation services could replace one or more vehicles in a U.S. household--the average household today has 2.4 vehicles--what would that look like?

It won't be a world without cars, but it could be a world in which you don't happen to own quite so many.

Or any.

[hat tip: Richard Rahders]


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