Fill 'Er Up—But With What?


The Global Race to Fuel

the Car of the Future

By Iain Carson and

Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran

Twelve; 336pp; $27.99

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Editor's Review

Star Rating

The Good An articulate and well-referenced account of the vehicle-fuel battlefront.

The Bad Needs more detail on those visionaries trying to solve our addiction to oil.

The Bottom Line An uneven, and occasionally politically shrill, survey.

Oil is hovering above $80 a barrel. Gas has been bouncing between $2.50 and $4 a gallon for the past two years. At $3.33 per gallon, it costs $100 to fill the tank of a Hummer H2—to carry the driver 350 miles. Fueling up even a Volkswagen Rabbit at the same pump will cost almost $50. Surely, you'd think, there must be a better means of keeping our vehicles running than with pricey oil drawn out of hostile and distant places.

It is in this context of Western anticipation of the Next Big Energy Thing that Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, correspondents for The Economist, have written Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future. What the authors describe, though, is not so much a race as inertia on the part of the auto and oil industries, petroleum-rich countries, politicians, environmentalists, and even consumers over what new energy sources will emerge as our primary fuels for autos. Overall, the book is an articulate and well-referenced survey that could have used more detail on the men and women trying to solve the West's, and increasingly the developing world's, addiction to oil.

Zoom is at its best when it reports on the visionaries, scientists, and the odd politician or government bureaucrat with the knowledge to fillet the go-slow arguments favored by Big Oil and Detroit. These figures include such hydrogen-power advocates as Energy Conversion Devices (ENER ) co-founder Stanford Ovshinsky and Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins; NASA climate-change expert James Hansen, who defied White House directives on staying neutral in the debate; and Tesla Motors founders Elon Musk and Martin Eberhard. Ovshinsky, for example, is the head of a company that has lost money for most of the 40 years it has been public, yet he is widely seen as the best brain developing hydrogen and other alternative energy today. Tesla, whose cars go on sale next year, didn't wait for a big advance in battery technology. Instead, it cobbled together existing batteries similar to the ones used now in cell phones and laptops. These stories are absorbing, but there are other tales Zoom could have delivered. Where are the blow-by-blow narratives on such breakthroughs as General Motors' (GM ) plug-in Volt concept car or Ballard Power Systems' (BLDP ) struggle to store 300 miles worth of compressed hydrogen on board a vehicle?

At times, the authors' tone is shrill: The "call for energy used to justify subsidies for pork-barrel projects or mere sops to the industry, such as drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness." Moreover, there's lots of attention paid to such familiar material as how the auto and oil companies have been foot-draggers on fuel economy and how Toyota (TM ) gave us the Prius hybrid while GM simultaneously abandoned its EV-1 electric car and purchased Hummer.

Big Oil, not surprisingly, takes many broadside hits. Targets range from former ExxonMobil (XOM ) CEO Lee Raymond's dismissals of global warming to the damage wrought by the extraction of oil from Canadian tar sands and shale. But the correspondents of the British weekly exhibit plenty of affection for the controversial ex-CEO of BP Amoco (BP ). John Browne indeed needled his own industry with rhetoric about diversifying away from fossil fuels, but he has also come under severe criticism for lax safety and environmental standards for oil exploration. Nevertheless, say the authors, Lord Browne "may have done nothing less than start preparing BP for the unthinkable: life after oil. And if indeed he got it right, it will be his rivals in the dinosauric American oil industry who turn green—with envy."

Although the authors lean left in their indictments of Big Business, their criticisms of politicians are evenhanded. It's not all about Republicans or the current White House, they write, but also Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and, yes, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who failed to push a carbon-tax agenda in 1993-94 when they had a Democratic majority in Congress. The Sierra Club and other enviro-advocates get dinged, too, for settling for too little in energy legislation.

Zoom concludes somewhat self-righteously with a series of bullet-point advisories for would-be U.S. Presidents. What's needed, they say: European-style gas taxes to heighten demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles, as well as an end to government sponsorship of specific technologies, such as corn ethanol, in favor of letting the free markets sort things out. The authors, like the reader, know that any change in energy policy and infrastructure would be a complicated, gargantuan task facing the opposition of entrenched business interests. A race? It's more like a wrestling match with those who want to save the planet nearly always on the mat.

By David Kiley

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