Drag Race

Two Economist reporters discuss the future of the car and what will fuel it.

By Rachel Deahl

After finding themselves consistently covering the same stories, Economist reporters Vijay Vaitheeswaran, who covers energy, and “planes, trains, and automotive guy” Iain Carson, decided to pool their intellectual knowledge for Zoom, a new book about the future of cars and the oil economy. Working across the Atlantic, Vaitheeswaran and Carson examined the twin histories of the American oil and automotive industries to offer, finally, a solution for solving one of the stickiest issues of the energy crisis: finding an environmentally and consumer-friendly way to power the automobile. Plenty recently chatted with the authors about the problems and their proposed solutions.

A number of problems contribute to global warming. Why focus on cars?

VV: Of course there is a multiplicity of things contributing to global warming. Coal, for example, is a much bigger contributor to the global warming nightmare than oil is. But solving the coal problem—and we must—is going to be easier. We already have market-ready alternatives with solar, wind, natural gas and nuclear. We can round up the head of every coal fire utility, lock them in a room, and tell them they need to switch to some other kind of energy conversion. But just try telling 300 million Americans that they can’t drive their cars tomorrow. The coal problem is easier to solve, politically and socially, than the oil problem because cars are much more intrinsic to the American way of life.

But the book is not anti-car.

VV: The bottom line is that Americans won’t live like the Japanese—in crowded little cities in small apartments—and our country doesn’t have the infrastructure for a public transit system like Europe’s. The car is going to be with us; love it or hate it. We need to clean up the cars so they can become the agent of change that can positively affect the energy system.

Ultimately you think the solution needs to come from Washington, not Detroit.

VV: Yes, very much so. Car companies, particularly American car companies, have shown they’re not leaders on this issue. The car companies’ legal responsibility is to their shareholders, not to society at large, per se. If we want to solve the problem we have to look to the political process. And the book should really be seen as a call to arms to our fellow Americans—citizens, drivers, and voters, in particular—to recognize that the political system, at the moment, is not addressing the serious problems having to do with climate change and oil dependency. A lot of solutions are being offered from both parties, but it’s still difficult to take on the oil and car lobbies.

What about alternative fuels. Are they “greener”?

VV: This is one of the great myths we’d like to debunk. People think that alternative energy and alternatives to oil can only be good. The fact is there are dirty alternatives—like the tar sands in Canada—being used. And, while high oil prices are great because they help clean alternatives like ethanol and windmills, they also help the dirty alternatives. So while an ethanol project gets more viable when oil is $80/barrel, so to does mining those tar sands in Canada. That’s why I say, if you’re someone who cares about the environment, don’t cheer for the oil price. Get involved in the public policy process and make sure we have things like carbon taxes. That’s the only way clean alternatives will be rewarded in the marketplace.

Of the clean car technologies being used and developed, which do you think will win out?

IC: Vijay and I often debate this, but we both agree that there’s a path leading from hybrids, through plug-in hybrids, to fuel cell electric hybrids. Plug-ins could delay the day when fuel cell hybrids make an economic alternative to gasoline, but overall I think plug-in hybrids will rock the industry over the next five years, and fuel cell hybrids thereafter.

What do you think are some of the best alternative fuel source cars on the market now?

IC: Among American automakers, I’d say the Lexus Hybrid. It’s as good as it gets.

VV: I also think Tesla is an automaker to watch. Not because it’s electric—although that is amazing—but because it’s made from an incredibly advanced carbon fiber. It’s also really cool looking: It’s a car people see and want…especially when they find out it’s faster than a Ferrari. It’s changing the idea of what an alternative fuel car is.