The TH Interview: Vijay Vaitheeswaran, author of Zoom (Part 1)



"Oil is the problem. Cars are the solution," says Vijay Vaitheeswaran. For the past decade, Vijay has written for the Economist magazine, covering energy, transportation, and economy. His newest book is Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of Future, which he wrote with fellow Economist correspondent Iain Carson. Vijay knows he can't make everyone happy with what he proposes, but in his eyes the race is already well underway and the revolution is at hand.
Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or listen/right-click to download.

TreeHugger: In Zoom, you and Iain Carson talk about this "Great Awakening"—capital G capital A. Explain this, what is this Great Awakening?

Vijay Vaitheeswaran: What we call the Great Awakening is really the American body politic waking up to the twin problems caused by the way we use fossil fuels, particularly oil. The twin problems are global warming and oil addiction.I think that just in the last few years we've seen a dramatic change in American public attitudes towards both the climate change problem, because of the effects of Hurricane Katrina, and finally Americans are listening to our scientists, our respected elders and leaders who have been telling us for a long time—long before Katrina—that climate change is a serious problem that we need to pay attention to.

Well, when a great American city was destroyed by a mega storm and the government proved completely impotent in the face of that storm and incompetent, I think many Americans said, even if that storm wasn't caused by global warming, this gives us an idea that we are vulnerable too, and why don't we listen to the chief scientists at NASA and other figures who have been saying this is a real problem. That's one aspect of it.

The second, of course, is the Iraq war and surge in oil prices of the last few years which have reminded Americans that oil comes from a very troublesome part of the world and carries with it this potential for economic shock that affects their own pocket book. As well as, of course, the perversion of foreign policy that's always implied by a resource that is concentrated in a few hands.

TreeHugger: So this awakening is leading to a sort of revolution; and you say that there hasn't been such effervescence in autos since the early days of the industry. What do you see in the auto industry that reflecting the magnitude of this awakening?

Vijay: Let's remember, 100 years ago there were more electric cars on the streets of America than there were gasoline cars. Henry Ford's Model-T car could run perfectly well on ethanol made from corn, as it could from gasoline. It was as we call a flex-fuel car.

There was an earlier era of experimentation and innovation in cars and clean energy that fell by the wayside as the big Detroit companies, and particularly the big oil companies, got an essentially an oligopolistic hold on the market. For much of the 20th century, we really didn't see a lot of innovation. We saw the internal combustion engine and gasoline become really the dominant force in motor transport.

What I call the effervescence, and in a way returning to the golden age of innovation, right now we have a multiplicity of fuels that are competing with gasoline, whether it's ethanol from sugarcane or other sources. We have the potential for hydrogen as a long-term way of powering your car and buses in a very clean way. And of course we have electricity, increasingly. All of these things along with energy efficiency, which many people overlook, I see as rival fuels helping to replace gasoline over time.


TreeHugger: So the book you wrote is "Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future." Coming from an engineering background as you do, what will the car of the future look like and what will fuel it? 10 years from now, what do you think is going to rise to the top as far as technologies that carry us beyond oil?

Vijay: I think the most important idea that we put forward in this book is that there is no silver bullet. There's no single technology that's going to replace oil and the internal combustible engine. For the last few decades a lot of advocates have wanted to replace gasoline, and many people understood the problem. Since the 1970s we've been aware in America that we need to do something about oil. But the problem is, everyone who thought this had their own pet solution. Some people wanted corn ethanol, other people only wanted renewable-based electricity powering a particular kind of electric car, some people bet on only certain kinds of hydrogen. And each camp thought that they had to be the winner.

So it's a classic story of what happened to the renewable industry: the solar guys point their finger at wind guys. The geothermal guys want the subsidy but they don't want any subsidy for anyone else. And in the end everybody loses in the clean energy community.

We need a portfolio of technologies, all of them rolling in the same direction...it doesn't matter to America which one of these technologies wins.

Whereas now what I think you're seeing is that once you get beyond the silver bullet mindset, and what we argue in the book, is that we need all of them. We need a portfolio of technologies, all of them rolling in the same direction. And once we envision a level energy playing field without subsidies or distortions for dirty energy, ultimately with incentives for all of the clean energies to come in the market place, it doesn't matter to America which one of these technologies wins. It doesn't matter whether we're in a world of predominantly electric powered cars or some kind of bio-fueled powered cars. I think that in different parts of the country and different parts of the world, places which get natural endowments better suited to one or the other of these approaches, they will take them on.

What I mean by that is, let's say you're in the Midwest or you're in India where there is a lot of bio-fuel, there is a lot of agricultural sector, you're probably going to use something like an ethanol or biodiesel. If you're in the Pacific North West where there is a lot of hydro in America, or if you're in France where they have a huge amount of nuclear, at night they particularly giving away the electricity from those giant power plants. It's very cheap to make hydrogen at night using that electricity to crack water and produce hydrogen power for your fuel cells.

Those parts of the world may take up that option and it might be much cheaper than the other alternatives that I am advocating. So that's why I say the key advance is to get beyond the idea that it's got to be one horse that's going to win. I think we've got a great horse race and that's the best news for the planet.

TreeHugger: In 2003 you wrote the book "Power to the People." Looking back at that and seeing where things are now, what have you seen in the realm of energy and environment that's surprising? Have you seen anything that really turned out over those few years to be different than you predicted?

Vijay: People criticized me at the time for being too techno-utopian, being too optimistic when in fact the world is a gloomy place and we're running out of resources. The population is exploding in Asia. We're having a global warming crisis that America isn't awake to. I think the last three or four years have validated my optimism in the sense that America has woken up to climate change.

Silicon Valley knows a lot more about software than Detroit and frankly, so does Bangalore.

Americans are very mindful. Even Americans who aren't environmentalists (and there are lots of Americans who are not environmentalists) are very concerned about the direction of our foreign policy, about the role that oil plays in keeping our country hostage in some ways to a powerful oil cartel (the OPEC cartel) and various powers in the Middle East. And they don't like what is happening in the Iraq War.
I think that is new and that wasn't in the book because it hadn't happened yet, but it's validated the thesis in a way.

My writings have never been about specific technologies. I'm not a hydrogen advocate, I'm not an electric car nut, and I'm not an ethanol enthusiast. I argue about outcomes, and what I'm excited about is that we have fundamentally a number of choices that are moving in the right direction to move our economy beyond petroleum.

If you asked what specific technology has changed since let's say, five years ago when I wrote that previous book, I would say the biggest advancement has been in batteries. Everybody has been astonished, delighted, and ecstatic that battery technology, things like the lithium-ion batteries that we all use in our cell phones and Blackberries, and laptops are getting so much better so much faster than anyone had predicted.

That is very good news because it allows the electrification of the car. That doesn't mean the car has to be an electric car, but what it does mean is there's going to be a lot more intelligence on board: energy storage, software, command and control systems, that provide the right platform for whatever alternative or flex-fuel we want to use.

A car that has much more sophistication and software also means that the traditional centers of automotive excellence like Detroit don't have to be the only place to make these cars. I mean, Silicon Valley knows a lot more about software than Detroit and frankly, so does Bangalore. So, we're going to see a lot more disruptive innovators coming from the bottom up, and that's new and that's exciting and that's also part of what ZOOM is all about.

Tags: Detroit | Electric Cars | Ethanol | TH Interview | Transportation

2014 Gift Guide

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK