The TH Interview: Vijay Vaitheeswaran, author of Zoom (Part 2)


In part two of our interview with the author of Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of Future, Vijay Vaitheeswaran explains why hydrogen is not a red herring (and how Who Killed the Electric Car? got it wrong), how infighting is holding back the clean energy revolution, and anticipates the divorce of cars and oil. Zoom is now a finalist in the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or listen/right-click to download.

(Listen to part one here. )
TreeHugger: So, let's talk about hydrogen for a minute. You opened ZOOM with this profile of Stan Ovshinsky, who is obviously a remarkable person—people will know him from "Who Killed the Electric Car?" There's an amazing scene of him and his wife walking through this solar factory that he's built; truly an inspiring personality.

But in your book, he's a hero for hydrogen fuel cells. He's at the cutting edge of hydrogen power. But in the film, he's a hero for solar, and "Who Killed the Electric Car?" paints hydrogen as this red herring, distracting people from more attainable, sustainable transportation solutions. Is hydrogen a red herring? Is this a distraction? Or is it part of this arsenal of technologies that are all going to be useful?

Vijay Vaitheeswaran: I'm glad you asked that because this is one of the most profound mistakes that the environmental movement and the renewable energy advocates make. I can't tell you the number of times that people have jumped up and down arguing that one technology or another is evil or terrible. And it's not big oil that's saying it, it's the advocate of a different technology within the clean energy community.

So, if I'm in a group of people who are enthusiasts for electric cars, I can promise you they will bash hydrogen. If I'm in a group of solar advocates, I can promise you (as happened in California with the recent solar bonds issued last year) they’ll want to make sure the wind guys don’t get any of it.

And why? Because of course the pie is only so big and they wanted a bigger share of the pie for themselves. If someone is advocating the other solution then it must be a distraction; there's got to be a ruse of some kind. I think this is extremely unhelpful. I think betting on specific technologies is a mistake.

If someone is advocating the other solution then it must be a distraction; there's got to be a ruse of some kind. I think this is extremely unhelpful. I think betting on specific technologies is a mistake.

I think a very telling moment came when at the New York launch of that wonderful movie, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" (which got a lot of things right but got hydrogen wrong). The filmmaker Christopher Paine didn't know that Stan and his wife were in the audience. They had just heard about the launch and they turned up, and you should have seen Chris on stage sweating because suddenly one of his stars, the grand old man of energy, stands up and says: "I'm Stan Ovshinsky and I want to say this is a very good film. Very thoughtful." But for the next ten minutes, he went on and explained and lectured the audience why they got hydrogen wrong in the film.

In essence, it's to conflate the idea of fuel cells (which are one particular way to convert hydrogen into useful electricity) with what Stan talks about, what my book talks about, that is a hydrogen loop. The reason Stan has come up with the solar energy is because it's a way of converting the energy of the sun into useful electricity that he stores in nickel-metal hydride batteries, for example. Now, what are those? These are the batteries that power the Toyota Prius, they use the technology, the hydrogen technology, that Stan has come up with.

There are other forms of storing hydrogen energy in solid form that he has pioneered. So he sees a loop (water to water, he calls it) in which renewable energy powers, in a zero-emission way, our cars, our laptops, our buses, and is returned back as water through the exhaust. I think that it's a noble goal and nobody could accuse Stan Ovshinsky of being in the back pocket of the oil lobby because he's not.

So, that's why I say it's easy and convenient to find scapegoats, but there's a long tradition of picking on technologies that you don't happen to like, and I think that's not a very helpful way to have a conversation.

TreeHugger: So, let's get back to the auto industry and oil for a minute. You call these guys the terrible twins and they're obviously fighting the implications of what you call the Great Awakening. You point out how Amory Lovins was one of the first people to argue (and he was mocked at the time) that prosperity and oil consumption don't need to be one and the same thing, you can decouple these ideas. Are the terrible twins really starting to split up? Is this taking place?

Vijay: The car industry and the oil industry are headed for divorce. There's no question. It's a messy divorce, it's a hundred-year marriage, but it's on the rocks. Basically what's happened is the guys in the car industry have decided they're tired of getting bashed for problems they're not responsible for. The main problems that we associate with cars, that is: the environmental filth that kills our children through various forms of local environmental pollution; the potential damage to our grandchildren through global warming and through longer term issues; the geopolitical complications that we're all familiar with in the Middle East; as well as the potential for economic shocks and leaving the American economy vulnerable; as well as making Americans poor through rising gasoline prices.

Look, these are all things to do with oil. The car itself, by and large, represents mobility, freedom and the engine of prosperity. If you're an 18-year-old kid in a large household, it might be the only privacy you have for romance. If you're a soccer mom (and opinion polls shows this consistently: the demographic that's most attached to the car is not the 18-year-old kid with the muscle car, it's the middle-aged woman is was a professional, who has children, and who is a working woman). For that person, without a safe reliable car to get to soccer, to get to work, and to get to the professional societies; her life is absolutely unimaginable. Women of that demographic are enormously attached to the car.

But I can promise you that none of these people—women, teenagers, or anyone else—wakes up saying, "I can't wait to get my gasoline today," right? Nobody gives a darn about gasoline. It's a noisy, smelly, excessive thing and most of us don't give a thought to it. But we love our cars.

Now, some people hate our cars, and that's okay too, but the point is, the car is not the actual problem. The problem is the fuel that it burns. The car industry has realized this and is making the investments to take the automobile out of the environmental debate.

The car industry and the oil industry are headed for divorce. There's no question.

I understand of course about the resources that are used to make the car; we could have a very academic debate about suburban sprawl, and I say that's an important conversation to have. My book does talk extensively about alternative ways of developing cities: the role of Curitiba, Brazil and Bogata, and new transport systems in Deli, and Shanghai; what the rich will learn from the poor in terms of public transportation. But don't get me wrong. I think that integrated thinking about urban planning and public transport is extremely important. But people need real choices, and one of those choices will always be personal mobility. And my argument is: unless we can fix that problem, all of the others will be swamped. It will not work.

TreeHugger: Let's talk about that automobile lifestyle for a second. Your point is well taken that people love their cars. Americans especially. They have no particular romantic attachment to gasoline per se, but the mobility, the lifestyle, and the environment of the car is something that people hold very dear.

We spoke to David Orr recently, the environment programs chair at Oberlin College. You and he were both in Leonardo DeCaprio's "The 11th Hour" together. And David says very firmly that the American way of life cannot go on uncompromised, and that to respond appropriately to our ecological risks, life as we know it, lifestyle as we know it, the economy as we know it, will have to change dramatically.

In the world of transportation, do you think we can maintain our basic patterns? Or does this really call for a radical overhaul?

Vijay: I think that it's extremely important to give real choices to people. At the moment, for 98% of Americans, taking public transportation is a ridiculous argument because we have done so poorly at developing public transportation. We have taken the last 50 years or more—really, most of the last 100 years—to build out and exurb an economy here in America, a freeway, open-road kind of infrastructure in which, other than little pockets like Boston, San Francisco, Washington, and where I live, Manhattan, there's no meaningful public transportation for the vast majority of Americans.

I've written a book saying we need to clean up the car and why cars are part of the future. I myself don't own a car. Because I live in Manhattan I have wonderful choices whether it's the bus, the subways, the Metro North light rail system and so on. Most Americans don't have the luck that I do. So I appreciate that talking about riding a bicycle when you work 50 miles away is ridiculous. I don't think you can let the ideal be the enemy of the good.

What's more, I will roll up my sleeves and work with anyone who wants to change our economy to be much more progressive in how we design our cities, providing meaningful public transport choices, so that in the future we have a very different pattern of living than we do now. But that's going take a number of years. It may take decades to undo all that we have done over the last fifty to seventy years.

We cannot wait that long to tackle global warming, or the problems in the Middle East and oil addiction. That's my argument. For most Americans, for a good amount of time to come, we need a car because that's the life we built out. We have to undo the harm that we've done in the past, and these environmental and other problems cannot wait for us to redo all of America. We need to do both things at once.

If we clean up the car we actually deal with most of the problems the car causes. Not all of them, and the long term social changes that Orr and others advocate, I'm delighted to be a part of that. But don't confuse that with solving the problems the car causes in the here and now.

I think it's fundamentally wrong to impose a set of ideologies on the whole country and ask Americans to solve these enormously pressing problems of climate change, local pollution, geopolitics related to oil. We have to leave ideology at the door.

TreeHugger: Does making the car more sustainable serve to entrench it further? Does it serve to tie us for longer to this way of life?

Vijay: I don't have a problem with freedom, mobility, and individual expression. I know some people do have a problem with that, and if they do then I'll take up arms against them. I think it's fundamentally wrong to impose a set of ideologies on the whole country and ask Americans to solve these enormously pressing problems of climate change, local pollution, geopolitics related to oil. We have to leave ideology at the door.

If you expect 100% of Americans to live like only the people that would join a radical environmental group, then I would say: that might be a utopian view of the world, perhaps we should all live like that, but I'll bet you that's not going to happen.

Whereas, if we actually take practical steps, leaving ideology at the door, we ask: what are the problems that are created by the needlessly dirty and inefficient ways we use energy today? I'd say the problems, principally, are those of externalities.

That is, when we burn the dirty fuels that we burn in cars (but also in our power plants) most of the harm that is done is not done to the guy sitting in the car. When the tailpipe exhaust comes out, it's the kid on the street corner that gets asthma. It's the woman in Bangladesh, or the guy's grandchild, who's going to suffer from the impacts of global warming.

But it's certainly unlikely to be the person driving along today. Ultimately, it's someone else's child that's fighting wars in the Middle East because of the policy distortions that are caused by the way we use gasoline. Those externalities are the ones that we must deal with and we must deal with quickly.

Now, there are other problems caused by cars, for example, traffic. We all know there are huge problems with congestion. Here's my attitude: I'm a lot more relaxed about that problem than I am about that child on the side of the street that's dying sooner than he or she should. Why? Because the person sitting in traffic suffers most from the problem of traffic. It's not an externality. It's primarily something that the person who's driving at four o'clock in the afternoon into the city center, they themselves are the ones that suffer. It's when you impose the harm for your pleasure onto other people, that really outrages me.

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