Feature

Book of the week

Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future

Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future
by Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran
(Twelve, $27.99)

The end is near for petroleum-fueled cars, say the business journalists Iain Carson and Vijay Vaitheeswaran. Automakers have no other choice. Hundred-dollar-a-barrel oil might not be a game-changer in America, where there are currently 1,148 vehicles on the road for every 1,000 eligible drivers. But if per capita oil consumption in growing India and China reaches even half that of the U.S., those two countries alone will need more oil than the world currently produces. A lively market for cars could close the gap quickly. In India, there are currently only 11 vehicles on the road for every 1,000 eligible drivers. In China, the number is nine. Despite the “terrifying” implications of those figures, said Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, Carson and Vaitheeswaran present themselves as “techno-optimists.” They predict that imminent disaster can be avoided with a little wise public leadership, and they point to a handful of emerging technologies as justification for their hope. A stiff tax on gasoline, they say, would prod Detroit’s Big Three automakers to introduce flex-fuel ethanol engines, plug-in hybrids, or hydrogen fuel cells before foreign companies corner the market on innovation. What the authors fail to mention is that electricity, ethanol, and even hydrogen are currently produced by burning fossil fuels, which means their “car of the future” would merely perpetuate our dependence on oil or coal. At least Carson and Vaitheeswaran prove to be “excellent historians,” said Bob Simmons in The Seattle Times. The bulk of Zoom is devoted to exploring how Big Oil and its friends in Washington have steered Detroit away from innovation and fuel efficiency for the better part of a century. It’s not until the book’s final three chapters that a reader starts meeting the inventors and other mavericks who point the way past our national oil addiction. The authors insist that Washington should retreat to the sidelines after hiking the federal gas tax, said Kyle Smith in the New York Post. The market is better at sorting winning technologies from the losers, they figure. What’s more, when government starts handing out energy subsidies, the oil, gas, and nuclear industries always get far more than the innovators we’re all counting on.

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