A week after the government increased prices of diesel and petrol in June, I found my daily car ride to office less chaotic because there were fewer vehicles on the road. Around the same time, a colleague brought a two-wheeler and a battered helmet out of the garage because he could not “afford to drive the car anymore”. He was obviously reacting to the rise in prices, and opting for a cheaper mode of transport.
Clean wheels: A fuel-efficient economy is possible with cars such as Tesla.
Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran followed a similar hunch when they set out to write Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future. Unlike my spot analysis, the duo have turned out a compelling and well-researched book on a topic that is vital for car drivers, and relevant for everyone. While Carson is the European business editor for The Rs.Economist, Vaitheeswaran, who holds a mechanical engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is the former global environment and energy correspondent of the same publication.
Until I read this book, my idea of an alternative to fuel was either the hybrid vehicle or something that sounded more like a green-geek’s imagination gone wild.
It is much more. The sharp spurt in international oil prices (which, some believe, will touch $200 or around Rs8,600 per barrel), indicates that global oil supplies will eventually hit rock bottom. But as Zoom demonstrates, this is not going to happen in the near future. So, why the urgency? And what would generate the momentum?
The answer is in the host of factors that seem to be coalescing at this point.
The gradual decline of three leading American auto giants — GM, Ford and Chrysler — and emerging Japanese biggies, especially Toyota, is a key element. These changes, as the book points out, are challenging the historical nexus between oil supply and automobile companies. The Japanese, who have had a very successful representation in India with Maruti Suzuki, have consistently sought to push the envelope in designing fuel-efficient cars without compromising on comfort.
At the same time, climate change now dominates the agenda of every global forum. The steep rise in oil prices will, of course, only reinforce this urgency. We can expect the imminent change in leadership in Washington, DC to give the process fresh impetus.
Cars driven by diesel have already begun to acquire a significant market share. But these vehicles, as the book argues, are “incremental and inadequate”. Not surprising, given the vital stats: American vehicles emit around 480gm of pollutants per mile, just over double the European level; the figure in Asia is halfway between the two.
That brings us to the third factor: the gradual transformation of Asia as the emerging centre of the world. While China has already transformed into an economic powerhouse, India, in its unique stop-go style, is slowly heading the same way. Now, if either India or China were to adopt the wasteful standards of the US, then we could certainly expect the world to resemble a giant chimney soon.
Zoom argues that since both India and China are relatively late starters, they will be able to avoid the costly mistakes of the West and leapfrog to more eco-friendly technology. More importantly, both countries clearly believe that oil as the primary source of energy is a limited option.
Automobile companies in both countries have begun exploring alternatives — Reva, the electric car, is an example — and have also made a great deal of investment in public transport in the metros.
The book demonstrates that in theory all countries have the wherewithal to bring about a dramatic end to the world’s addiction to oil, and thereby reduce their carbon footprint.
The authors are optimistic: We will eventually evolve into a hydrogen economy, they say. The car will be driven by hydrogen, which will combine with oxygen to create a chemical reaction that will, in turn, generate electricity and water — a zero-emission model.
Sounds futuristic? Check out Tesla. It is an electric car, highly priced at the moment at $100,000 (around Rs43 lakh), but it goes at up to 60 miles (96.54 km) an hour in just 4 seconds and returns an equivalent of 135 miles (217.21 km) per gallon (3.79 litres) of gasoline.