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Race is on to fuel the car of the future

Cover of "Zoom," by Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: Whether today's UAW strike lasts a day or a year, we all know Detroit's in the middle of a wrenching change in the way it does business. We have yet to see if it's going to work.

But if American car makers can turn themselves around, it could help solve a lot of problems -- global warming, U.S. reliance on foreign oil, those kinds of things...

Vijay Vaitheeswaran's most recent book is on that very topic: cars of the future and how they'll be fueled. It's called Zoom. Vijay, welcome to the program.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: Great to be here.

RYSSDAL: Let me dive right in to this book and pick on something you say in the first couple of pages -- that "oil is the problem, the car is the solution." What does that mean?

VAITHEESWARAN: There's a lot of demonization of the SUV and what we try to point out is a fact: Most of the things we associate as terrible about the car, these are all things created by oil. If cars themselves were to use other fuels, then we would actually get a lot of the mobility, the freedom, the prosperity that's made possible by personal transport, while divorcing ourselves from all of those problems.

RYSSDAL: You say "fuels" in the plural... Does that imply that you don't think there's going to be a fuel monopoly as we have now with gasoline?

VAITHEESWARAN: Absolutely. I think we're going to have a multiplicity of fuels. And at different parts of the world, you may well see biofuels, you'll see hydrogen, you'll see electricity as a fuel. There isn't one technology that's big enough to defeat oil, and it doesn't have to be.

RYSSDAL: You're depending, though, on two old-line heavy industries -- that is, oil and Detroit -- to make this leap into innovation. Are they going to be able to do that?

VAITHEESWARAN: I think, actually, that the car industry and the oil industry are headed for a divorce. Cars are what people want -- nobody really wants, or has an emotional attachment, to the gasoline in the tank. What they have the attachment to is their cool convertible or their very safe SUV or whatever it is people go and buy. I think cars and the car industry now very clearly recognize it has a chance to get rid of its troublesome partner because of this multiplicity of technologies. And they're investing heavily, to the tune of billions of dollars, in advanced batteries, fuel cells, flex fuel technology... You're finding every car maker has several bets because it's not clear what the winner will be.

RYSSDAL: You say that you think Detroit and American auto makers are willing and able to move forward in the spirit of innovation that would be required for this to happen. But these are the same companies that are still making things like Hummers, for crying out loud...

VAITHEESWARAN: Absolutely. Don't get me wrong -- I don't think that salvation is assured. I think among Ford, GM, Chrysler and some of the other giants of Europe, they'll need to decide which of them is going to try to defend old ways of doing business. And there will be some innovators among them.

RYSSDAL: Was it you or your co-author who went to Detroit and actually rented a Hummer?

VAITHEESWARAN: That was me.

RYSSDAL: Tell us that story.

VAITHEESWARAN: Well, I couldn't resist when I got to Detroit Airport to do some research for this book to rent the Hummer. And I was driving -- a little self-conscious, but at the rental car counter, the guy looks at me and says "Ah, you got the big boy today, sir. Way to go!" And it was much the same driving all over Detroit -- pulling in at the shopping mall, girls checking me out... And I was thinking, "Boy, this is another world from the East Coast or California" where I risked getting the car keyed and certainly booed and hissed at. An in a way, that was part of the impetus for this book. We're not anti-SUV -- I mean, the Hummer is a pretty heavy and inefficient vehicle, but even an SUV can be consistent with an environmentally friendly future if you think of it this way: If the whole world drove Priuses, we're still 100 percent addicted to oil, because every Prius uses a lot of gasoline. If my SUV is made of lightweight carbon composite material -- meaning it's very efficient -- and I have a stack of fuel cells in there, and I get the hydrogen from a renewable farm, I'm suddenly 100 percent off of oil. You're the one who's the problem, driving the Prius.

RYSSDAL: Vijay Vaitheeswaran is a correspondent for the Economist. He's an occasional commentator on this program. He's also the co-author of the new book Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future. Vijay, thanks a lot for your time.

VAITHEESWARAN: It's great to be with you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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