By on January 8, 2009

When new acquaintances find out that I cover the automotive industry, the response is often a flood of pent-up questions on the topic. Though much of the interest converges on the future of the American automakers, the future of cars, fuel and mobility in general attract a lot of curiosity. Facile blogger that I am, I usually cop out by saying that telecommuting is the true future of mobility. In reality, the interplay of energy, economics, politics, technology and the environment that defines the cars and fuels of the future is a topic of near infinite complexity. Luckily, two correspondents for the Economist have tackled the issues in a new book entitled Zoom: The Global Race To Fuel The Car Of The Future.

One major advantage that Zoom enjoys over other titles in its genre: its authors tackle the subject with the methodical pragmatism of their day-job employers, the Economist. Iain Carson and Vijay Vaitheeswaran’s global perspective and big-time access pervade the prose. And though they work from a solidly market- and enterprise-oriented framework, they give both environmental alarmists and government interventionists a chance to present their ideas.

The first chapter’s entitled “The Terrible Twins.” But don’t worry: the oil- and auto-industry bashing is not an exercise in political point-scoring. In fact, the authors treat this history of the industries’ unique challenges and tortured symbiosis with sensitivity. From FDR and OPEC to NOCs and CAFE, Zoom hurtles towards the present (copyright 2007), and the looming question that lends Zoom‘s second section its name: “Can The Dinosaurs Dance?”

In “The Parable Of The Prius,” the authors compare Toyota’s debut of its new Camry at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show to Tommy LaSorda driving a Grand Cherokee through a plate-glass window. And the point isn’t just that Toyota is a fossil fuel-addicted “dinosaur” that is dancing to a tune that will only get louder over time. Toyota’s ability to dance at all is the product of aggressive and foresighted business practices. Meanwhile, Chrysler is, well, Chrysler. Though climate concerns are discussed, the focus is clearly on the economic impacts of oil addiction: price shocks, the oil curse and inefficiency. These factors, argue the authors, are creating new business paradigms for big oil and auto which are far more meaningful and effective than global warming hysteria.

Whether discussing the geopolitical entanglements of ever-draining oil reserves or the myriad pretenders to petroleum’s crown, Zoom manages an admirable balance between factual accuracy and narrative flow. From any fixed ideological standpoint, there are elements to both love and hate. In between, a wealth of information will tempt you to embrace the complexity and ambiguity inherent in the book’s subject matter.

Unfortunately, such committed even-handedness can cause some editorial frustration. Nearly every compelling argument and prediction in Zoom is quickly followed by a flurry of equally convincing equivocations. Accordingly, the lessons you do take away from Zoom tend to be of the simplicity-amidst-chaos nature. Understanding and embracing the reality that no single energy source will replace petroleum is one such deceptively straightforward “lesson.”

The importance of a moderate approach is another of the authors’ valuable insights—that’s both obvious and widely ignored in discourse on the topic. In the words of Amory Lovins, whose Defense Department-funded efficiency studies define much of Zoom‘s approach, “optimism and pessimism are two sides of the same coin—both dangerous!” Carson and Vaitheeswaran’s limited editorializing clearly pursues Lovins’ goal of “efficiency, not a hair shirt.”

Contrary to their own advice though, optimism gets Zoom‘s authors run into trouble. Though they quickly denounce US corn ethanol subsidies, both ethanol and vigorous government energy policy receive qualified praise. They never explain how we can enjoy the latter two without ending up with the former.

Similarly, many pages of speculation are devoted to the promise of hydrogen fuel cells. And though the caveat that fuel cells have been “the future” for a good 30 years is dutifully mentioned, descriptions of micropower- and hydrogen-based futures tend to be glimpsed through a futurist’s rose-colored glasses.

In fact, hydrogen hype infects the book’s introduction. “The Great Awakening” is bad enough to make the reader contemplate giving up on Zoom after the first five pages. Stanford Ovshinsky of Energy Conversion Devices (“no hydrogen hypester,” insist the authors) is quickly given free reign to declare a dawning “Hydrogen Age.” How did I miss it?

Then again, I don’t license technology to the likes of Sony, Samsung and BYD. Ovshinsky does. As a blogger, though, I do know that enough has changed since Zoom’s 2007 copyright date to take some shine off of its predictions. Political, economic and technological changes are coming so fast, no book could possibly keep up. Instead of reading Zoom for some repeatable, comprehensive take on “the future of mobility,” skip the introduction and read it as an admirably even-handed history of hydrocarbons and their discontents.

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8 Comments on “Book Review: Zoom: The Race to Fuel the Car of the Future...”

  • avatar
    Point Given

    It was a timely book when released but times have since quite quickly passed it by.

    The authors are very hydrogen heavy as you have stated.

    Still, if you can grab the book from your local library it’s well worth the read and gives a nice overview of the “emerging” alternatives.

  • avatar
    tesla deathwatcher

    Not a bad book. But heavy on people stories. Zoom seems cobbled together from story assignments that the authors did for The Economist.

    Amory Lovins and Stan Ovshinsky, among others, get star treatment in this book. The authors call Ovshinsky the modern-day Edison. There are lots of other heroes too — probably a hundred people are profiled. Few villains, though.

    Zoom is still readable and interesting. But it’s not a book that contributes much to either knowledge or debate. Mostly preaching to a certain kind of choir.

    That’s a shame, because these authors could have done more. Vijay Vaitheeswaran’s earlier book Power to the People is much better.

    The problem of energy, especially for transportation, is not going away. We need books that help us figure out how to solve that problem. That Zoom tries to do that is laudable. That it fails is unfortunate.

  • avatar

    I have it… haven’t read it yet tho.

  • avatar

    This book was donated to my unit (along with other’s no one wanted) while I was in Iraq. Wouldn’t have been a bad book if the author could have got Toyota’s d*ck out of his mouth.

  • avatar

    I listened to it on CD (cheapskate tip – local libraries often have audiobooks for loan).

    I thought the authors did offer viable policy suggestions for improving fuel efficiency:

    1) Reveal & then pass along oil subsidies. They called out the military cost of securing the Gulf paid for through general Federal taxes as an implicit oil subsidy. If we’re going to project military power to ensure tankers get through the Straits of Hormuz, then why not isolate those costs and collect the taxes on the oil that makes it a necessity?

    2) Signal to all markets that oil will get more expensive over the next 10+ years – easily accomplished by the suggestion that a $0.05/gallon tax increase PER MONTH is coming. Everyone will know that gas will cost $3/gal more in 5 years & perhaps be less tempted by the newest F150

    I’m a die-hard piston head & enjoy driving, but the current market incentives in the US are the reason our highways (especially it seems the left most lanes) are clogged with 3 ton SUVs. I believe that as enthusiasts we can have our fuel efficiency cake and eat performance too. Lighter cars handle better, manual transmissions get better fuel economy – set new market parameters and products for us enthusiasts will surely emerge…

  • avatar

    The future belongs to GM. They have the technology and are going to unveil it in their new products. Once President Barack Obama has straightened out the unfair TRADE Practices that exist and levels out the playing field GM will take over the new car market and their stocks will surge. The foreign governments will no longer be able to manipulate their currencies to get the edge. They will no longer be able to run slave shops. They will have to extend human rights to their workers. When this is done they will no longer be able to keep pace with GM or any other American made product. AMERICANS are the INNOVATORS, We will dominate and the days of bringing in sub-par products and poisoned foods to the shores of America will end.

  • avatar

    Scartooth, assuming all you say is true (and that takes quite the salt shaker), wouldn’t the future belong to FORD? They already have a good hybrid, more feasible business plan and better management… Americans ARE innovators, GM is not.

  • avatar

    @Scartooth, If only I’d known you were going to fire up the old flame, I’d have brought some marshmallows.

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