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Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel

Spiralling oil prices have led to one positive spin-off: auto giants are in a race to find the best fuel for future cars. Here's a book that takes you on that thrilling ride, writes N. Chandra Mohan.

books Updated: Jul 29, 2008 19:05 IST
N. Chandra Mohan

Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future
Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran
Rs 395 PP 336 T

Thanks to the third major oil shock, auto giants are racing to come up with alternative solutions to using fossil fuels. This is the subject matter of this fascinating book. "Oil is the problem, not cars," argue the authors.

As engines of change, the clean cars of the future can help speed the world towards a more sensible approach to transportation. But how to get from here to that Promised Land especially when powerful lobbies like Big Oil have no interest in developing alternatives and Big Auto has shown no signs of innovation?

The authors highlight the role of a powerful American grassroots movement - the Great Awakening - that is pushing this race to fuel the car of the future. This includes Ayn Rand-like innovators like Stan Ovshinsky who are developing hydrogen technologies for cars. There is also a nationwide coalition com prising companies and local governments coalescing around the idea of plug-in hybrid cars that can be driven completely on electricity until the battery needs a recharge and only then would it switch to gasoline.

The key obstacle is the current Bush administration, whose polices on energy reflect the power of Big Oil and Big Auto. "After 9/11, Bush had the chance to summon the United States to a great nationbuilding project focused on breaking America's addiction to oil. Instead, he told us to go shopping. After gasoline prices hit $4.11 last week, he had the chance to summon the country to a great nationbuilding project focused on clean energy Instead, he told us to go . drilling," wrote Thomas Friedman of The New York Times.

However, gas at $4 a gallon has accelerated this global race as Americans are now preferring hybrids and smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. One in five US sales, of late, has been of a fuel-efficient compact or subcompact car as against one in eight a decade ago. A big casualty has been the gas-guzzling Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) whose sales have dropped in tandem with soaring oil prices. Iconic brands like the Hummer, made by General Motors, are now on the block, while it plans to bring a plugin hybrid, the Chevy Volt, by 2010.

Nothing exemplifies this race hotting up more than the success of Toyota's Prius, the world's first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid car whose sales have topped 1 million units worldwide. Toyota has a goal of selling at least 1 million hybrid cars a year in the early part of the next decade by offering the fuel-saving system on more vehicles. Toyota has struggled to keep up with demand for the Prius, thanks to soaring gasoline prices. It plans to launch the third generation model of this best-selling car next year.

The race for the car of the future will be truly won if there is similarly a Great Awakening in China and India, the two rising powers that are now experiencing an auto revolution. Can they leapfrog to a cleaner world? Carson and Vaitheeswaran appear optimistic in this regard. They write about China's embrace of hydrogen and the work of Gang Wan who is concentrating on various forms of alternative vehicles like hydrogen fuel cell-electric, electric, hybrid gasoline-diesel electrics and so on.

India's leapfrogging potential is somewhat less dramatic but is equally compelling. The long battle for cleaning up the air in the national capital, New Delhi, with the switch to compressed natural gas (CNG) is an example. The effort of the Tatas to bring out a fuelefficient car that is also the cheapest in the world is another. Is the TVS Motor Company competing with the Tatas in producing a relatively eco-friendly tiny car?