U.S. automakers lost their pioneering vision and became partners of Big Oil. Can they change fast enough?
The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future
by Iain Carson and Vijay V.
Vaitheeswaran. Twelve 2007,
The Tesla Roadster is a gleaming high-performance, all-electric sports car that can travel 200 miles on a single battery charge and accelerate from zero to sixty in four seconds. Among those signed up for the upcoming $100,000 model are Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, George Clooney and the macho green governor himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. When the Roadster was first unveiled, however, car buffs had a nagging complaint: the silent electrical motor. They missed the roar of a powerful V8 engine. A Tesla engineer quipped that the company could program in engine roars, like ring tones on a cell phone.
In Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future, this anecdote is one of many that illustrate the complex relationship Americans have with their automobiles. We depend on our cars not merely for transportation but also for entertainment, speed, and beauty. More often than not, cars reflect the image we harbor of our inner selves. That’s one reason so many people have resisted greener solutions to transportation. Yet, while cars are often targeted as a key source of global warming, Americans are not about to give them up. Nor should they, say authors Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, who declare that “oil is the problem, not cars.” This is the key thesis of Zoom, which provides a compelling examination of the competition to fuel the car of the future—with or without oil.
Today, driven by the fragile state of the environment and the need to break the country’s dependence on gasoline, innovators like Tesla and Toyota, as well as numerous entrepreneurs, engineers, and politicians, are seeking answers through new technologies and smarter legislation. Zoom champions these efforts, while tracing the intertwined history of “the terrible twins,” cars and oil. Though the authors, two experienced reporters for The Economist, do not diminish Detroit’s historic role in propelling the nation to prosperity, they maintain that the industry is too mired in Big Oil politics and has lost the vision of the earliest pioneers. They note, for example, that Henry Ford’s Model T, which was originally designed to run on ethanol, got better mileage than the average car today. And while U.S. automotive companies have been recalcitrant about change, foreign firms like Toyota have been taking the lead in establishing a new agenda. One of the questions the book poses is whether GM and Ford can do enough to catch up, reinventing themselves with a new business model.
Perhaps not surprisingly, impetus for change is coming in part from outside the U.S., notably from emerging superpowers China and India. The rising prosperity in both countries could push the total number of cars in the world to 2 billion within 30 years. The environmental and fuel-related crisis that could result is becoming an urgent concern. Thus, while today China grapples with acute pollution and increasing demand for petroleum, the country is taking strong measures to exploit wind, solar, and hydrogen fuels. Similar steps are being taken in Brazil and other nations, while India has just developed a tiny, eco-friendly car to sell for less than $3,000. If these countries can make such adjustments, so can the U.S., argue Zoom’s authors—if for no other reason than to maintain a share of these developing markets.
Carson and Vaitheeswaran conclude their book with “A Call to Arms,” urging Americans to support committed political leaders, but also to get realistic about the changes that lie ahead. “If we see that oil is the real problem at the heart of our environmental and energy dilemma,” they write, “then cars can be part of the solution. The altogether new coalitions made possible by envisioning the clean car of the future as a driver of change makes it possible at last to see a path to life after oil.”
Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.