Fueling the Cars of the Future

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In a new book, ZOOM, authors Iain Carson and Vijay Vaitheeswaran say that cars with electric engines are not so far down the road. The authors describe the quest for new cars powered by new fuels: hydrogen, electricity, biofuels and digital technology.

Guests:

Iain Carson, co-author of Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future; industry editor for the The Economist

Vijay Vaitheeswaran, co-author of Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future; former environmental and energy reporter for The Economist

Excerpt: 'ZOOM'

ZOOM book cover

Introduction: The Great Awakening

Oil is the problem, cars are the solution

If you want to see the future of automobiles and energy, you don't need to travel to Japan. Look no further than Troy, Michigan, where a latter-day Thomas Edison is forging the path.

"The ages of mankind have been classified by the materials they use — the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Age of Silicon. We are at the dawn of the Hydrogen Age." So proclaims Stanford Ovshinsky, co-founder of Energy Conversion Devices. "What is more, the hydrogen economy is happening already."

It is refreshing to see a hydrogen advocate who has actually come up with the goods. After all, there have been plenty of grandiose but unsubstantiated claims made over the past few years about the potential for hydrogen to replace fossil fuels as an energy carrier, so some skepticism is certainly in order. In particular, George Bush and the big automobile manufacturers have crowned hydrogen-powered fuel cells as the long-awaited replacement for the gasoline engine, but the date of commercialization for those automotive fuel cells somehow keeps slipping just beyond the horizon.

That has prompted a backlash from advocates of rival technologies (like electric cars and ethanol) and from environmentalists, who argue that hydrogen is just a cynical long-term diversion used by Bush and Detroit to avoid short-term action on fuel economy standards, plug-in hybrids or other here-and-now options.

And yet, here is Stan Ovshinsky, still trumpeting the virtues of hydrogen in the teeth of such opposition. Three things set Ovshinsky apart from the hydrogen hypesters. First of all, he is no newcomer. He first outlined his vision for what he calls a hydrogen loop some five decades ago as an alternative to fossil fuels. His loop starts with water, which is broken down by solar-powered "electrolysis" into useful hydrogen fuel that is stored in solid form or in batteries; that hydrogen is then used to power fuel cells, which release nothing but perfectly pure water vapor back into the atmosphere: "the loop goes from water to water!" he explains. Unlike others, he can hardly be accused of opportunistically seizing upon this obscure techno-fix to address a political or image problem.

The second difference is that Ovshinsky's green credentials are impeccable. He and his wife Iris founded ECD together in 1960 with the explicitly stated goal of "using creative science to solve societal problems." Astonishingly, they had the foresight to predict — long before the oil shocks of the 1970s — that the world's addiction to oil would lead to unacceptable side effects, ranging from resource wars to climate change. Spend some time with Ovshinsky and his employees, and it becomes obvious that his social values permeate his organization.

Vision and values are important, but what lifts Ovshinsky into the league of genius inventors is something rather less common: success. He has actually developed working products that overcome many (though not all) of the obstacles facing hydrogen. Billions of his breakthrough nickel-metal hydride batteries are now found in consumer devices, ranging from cell phones to game devices to laptops. His solid hydrogen storage system is also used by Toyota in all its Prius models, as well as in hybrid cars made by GM, Honda and other manufacturers. In other words, it is his quiet but dramatic work on hydrogen energy systems that has made the single most important advance in automotive technology — hybrid-electrics — commercially possible.

You might wonder why this earnest and innovative do-gooder is fiddling around trying to improve the automobile. After all, aren't cars the problem in the first place? Cars are often scorned as the most intractable source of global-warming. Our utter reliance on automobiles exposes our economy to potential economic shocks from volatile oil prices. To judge by the backlash against gas guzzlers in recent years, many Americans seem to be convinced that SUVs are the work of the devil. So perhaps it makes sense to get rid of the problem altogether.

The real trouble with cars

Just imagine a world without cars. Suddenly, it might seem that three great evils widely associated with automobiles — environmental harm, economic pain and geopolitical insecurity — would vanish. But realistically, a world without cars would be a dim, joyless place with much-diminished freedom, mobility and prosperity.

This is especially true for America, the birthplace of the modern automobile industry and most of the policy, technological and cultural developments behind mass motorization. From drive-through banks to drive-in churches, to roadside Holiday Inns, car culture permeates American life.

After a century of motorization, America crossed a threshold in 1995 when cars and light trucks first outnumbered the number of driving licenses in the country. Today, there are often more cars on the average American household's driveway than there are drivers inside, and three-car garages are becoming the norm. Inspired by the American example, the developing giants like China and India are now taking to the roads too. Soon, we will be a world of a billion cars.

That prospect alarms many environmentalists, but demonizing the automobile misses the point. The three great evils we associate with cars are actually the ill effects of oil, not the automobile.

Find a way to power the automobile without gasoline, and suddenly cars look a lot more attractive. Even the popular notion that sports-utility vehicles are the work of the devil is misleading. If you drive a virtuous Toyota Prius and your neighbor has a Ford Excursion (derided by environmentalists as the Ford Valdez), who is greener? If her SUV runs on advanced biofuels using a flexible-fuel engine that can run on ethanol made from corn or sugar, or on fuel cells using hydrogen made from a wind farm, then she has a green, no-gasoline vehicle while your hybrid still perpetuates our addiction to petroleum.

We must reinvent the car. Oil is the problem. As engines of change, the clean cars of the future can help speed the world toward a more sensible approach to transportation. The snag is getting from here to there. Big Oil clearly has no interest in seeing its main product go by the wayside, and the Detroit car industry has shown little sign of real innovation or long-term vision.

Is there anyone on earth audacious and powerful and inventive enough to challenge these dinosaurs — perhaps bypassing them altogether in coming up with the car of the future?

Stan Ovshinsky and a growing band of entrepreneurs, innovators and outsiders are now working furiously to spur the sorts of innovations that the established industry powers, Big Autos and Big Oil, simply refuse to develop. The energy industry has long had the knowledge needed to pursue petroleum substitutes, but has chosen to defend and milk its existing gasoline assets. The car industry has also had the technical ability to produce cars with much greater fuel efficiency, but has chosen to build gas guzzlers instead. Believe it or not, Henry Ford's Model T was a "flex-fuel" car that could run on either ethanol or gasoline, and got better gas mileage than the average new vehicle sold in America today. Worse yet, both industries have bitterly fought government efforts to encourage more efficient cars and alternative fuels, or co-opted and corrupted such efforts to the point that they became meaningless.

Stan Ovshinsky likes to get along with everyone, and is usually polite even about the big car and oil firms with whom he has long butted heads. Push him a bit about why he chose to pursue a career as a maverick, though, and the smile is quickly replaced with a glint of steel. Early in his career, he explains, he did work for the big firms but he found that their bureaucracies refused to accept his radical new designs. He set up his own shop, he says, "because I didn't have fifty years to wait for the field to catch up with me." One case that particularly upsets him was when he thought of a clever techno-fix that would allow electric windows to stop midway. The first versions of that technology did not have that feature, and as a result dogs and children were getting injured or even strangled. When the inventor rushed to offer his invention to a senior executive at one of the big car firms, he asked how much it cost. "When I told him just a couple of pennies, he said it was too much. I found myself grabbing his shirt and tie and saying 'what if this were your kid?' and storming off."

The intransigence of the American car and oil industries is not only frustrating for Americans, it has also proved short-sighted as it has left these firms vulnerable to attack from foreign rivals and from radical new technologies — just like IBM's mainframe business was knocked sideways a couple of decades ago by the unanticipated arrival of nimble personal computers, or the more recent case of Kodak and Polaroid being knocked sideways by missing the digital photography revolution. Indeed, Detroit's short-sightedness helps explain why venerable GM is now being overtaken by Toyota as the world's number one automaker.

Hydrogen is but one of Ovshinsky's passions, and advanced batteries and hybrid-electrics but one of the many contributions made by this polymath. Surprisingly, he has also come up with many advances in information technology (he calls information "encoded energy"). He made the key technology breakthroughs that made all flat panel displays possible. He holds critical patents related to a new form of non-volatile memory, which giants like Samsung and ST Microelectronics have licensed so they can replace Flash, DRAM and other current memory technologies. He has even come up with a radically more efficient replacement for the transistor, which forms part of an all "thin film" computer of the future. A PC the size of your thumbnail will, he is convinced, provide you all the processing power of the big and clunky computers of today.

Such advances were possible only because of his path-breaking discoveries in the field of disordered and amorphous materials (which has since been named Ovonics in his honor), as well as many nanotechnology and thin films processes and products arising from that new field. "We invent the materials, the products and the production technology," he says with characteristic self confidence.

That is no idle boast. His many breakthrough inventions make it tempting to compare ECD's co-founder with the great inventor from another age who founded General Electric, Thomas Edison. Both established themselves early on as not only brilliant innovators, but inventors with their feet firmly planted on the ground.

Both certainly rose from humble roots. Edison was not born to privilege, while Ovshinsky's father collected scrap by buggy. The latter day genius did not even go to college, and credits his vast knowledge of science to the public libraries of his native Ohio. He likes to say, "invention comes to the prepared mind."

As with Edison, ECD's founder overflows with self-confidence. He is not at all threatened by scientists with fancy degrees: he hires many of them, and has hosted lively debates around a round table at ECD with such prominent scientists as Hellmut Fritzsche and Morrell Cohen of the University of Chicago, David Adler of MIT and Sir Neville Mott of Cambridge (who went on to win the Nobel for work in amorphous materials). Needle him when he expects his own Nobel, and he responds matter of factly: "Oh, never. I've been nominated before, and Mott gave me credit when he won his, but I'll never get one." Without hint of bitterness he adds softly, "I'm not a part of their world."

Ask him about his influences as a youth, and he says, "I didn't have any role models or mentors." Not many men would reject being compared to Edison, but Ovshinsky is one of them: "I'm an original thinker, influenced by all of science."

His protests aside, there is another big similarity between the two great men. The contributions made by both men arose because of their abilities as full-systems thinkers. They had the verve to envision a radically different world, and also were good at inventing the practical things needed to get there. In Edison's case, his vision was that of mass electrification without local pollution. He perfected the incandescent light bulb and many other enabling technologies, and his company General Electric ultimately helped plug in America and the world.

Now, the modern world's most important energy visionary believes that we are now on the cusp of a clean energy revolution. Ovshinsky's vision for a hydrogen loop was just a blackboard exercise when unveiled five decades ago. But since then, he has invented a new field of science and produced innovations to bring that loop closer to reality. Joachim Doehler, a senior scientist at ECD, says, "Stan starts with a vision — say, 'the computer must work like the mind does'—and then goes out to invent what we need to get from here to there." Doing this requires more than scientific genius: it requires a practical engineer's mind too. "Stan is a very good toolmaker," says Robert Stempel, ECD's chairman (and the former boss of GM).

His collaborators say that he has an astonishing ability to juggle the permutations of eight or ten novel materials in his head — which normally would require heavy-duty math — which gives him an intuitive grasp of which scientific leads to follow (though, joke colleagues, he still sometimes cannot remember your name).

A sunny future

The best evidence of his systems approach at work is his new solar factory in Michigan. Several decades ago, he argued that solar panels must be made not as brittle crystalline panels in costly batch processes — how everyone else does it today — but "by the mile." He was ridiculed. Ovshinsky refused to yield, demanding his team come up with processes for producing miles of thin-film solar material. Doehler, a veteran of ATT's legendary Bell Labs, recalls telling him it was impossible. The boss proved him wrong, personally designing much of the solar factory from scratch using unusual industrial gases and a novel system of plasma deposition. Crucially, his approach requires only inexpensive raw materials, not the pricey silicon needed for conventional panels.

Ovshinsky points to the happy result on the shop floor: a flexible, self-adhesive strip of solar material that makes power even on cloudy days and which is virtually indestructible: "It's plug and play!" he gushes. The factory has an order backlog of six months and has profit margins topping twenty percent, he says. He now has another factory in the works nearby, and plans for many more: "I see ECD's future as a factory for factories. That's how you build entirely new industries for the future."

That sort of grand vision brings another sort of comparison to mind: could ECD be the GE of the 21st century? Most inventors would demur at the mere question, but not this one: "Oh, ECD will be much more than that," he says without missing a beat. "Energy and information are the twin pillars of the global economy, after all."

How justified is this boast? Few question his individual genius, but some do challenge his record as a corporate boss. An article in Forbes asked in 2003 why investors "keep giving money to an inventor who can create anything but profits?" That is a fair question. After all, ECD has lost money most of the forty-plus years that it has been public. As even one of his loyal lieutenants confesses, "This company would have gone bust six times already if it were not for the personal loyalty people felt for Stan and Iris; we went the extra mile for them because this place is unique."

That revelation points to one big way in which the two great geniuses of energy are not alike. Edison was a hard-charging man whose relentless pursuit of profit, product and prosperity drove GE to commercial success. To quash Tesla's superior alternating current technology (Edison's micropower plants initially used direct current), he arranged for the New York prison service to electrocute men using it: equating A/C with death, he hoped, would be the death of A/C. His protégé, Samuel Insull, became a corrupt utilities magnate of such disrepute that Franklin Roosevelt railed against the power "of the Ishmaels and the Insulls, whose hand is against everyman's."

That ruthlessness is a powerful contrast with the Ovshinsky vision and ECD's corporate culture. "We're here to change the world. No more war over oil," he has argued for decades, or environmental damage from fossil fuels. That might sound self-serving or phony coming from a purveyor of dirty energy — oil companies claiming to be "beyond petroleum" come to mind — but not in this case.

The values instilled by the Ovshinskys are the reason. This was made evident at the memorial service for Iris Ovshinsky in September 2006, attended by hundreds of friends, family and employees from around the world. Inspired by the family's links to the peace and civil rights movements, the Ovshinsky motto is "with the oppressed, against the oppressor." Stan Ovshinsky lost his first company because he refused to bow to racists. He says his directors were outraged when he hired a black secretary, and demanded that he fire her. He gave up the company rather than give in to their demands.

What is more, ECD is clearly committed to clean energy — and Ovshinsky is clearly not motivated by money. The New York Times analyzed executive pay in America and found that heads of companies typically get five hundred times the salary of the average worker at their firms; the ratio at ECD is five to one. He likes to point out that he is "probably the only chief executive that is a union member." The Ovshinskys lived a simple life together, with love of family and passion for learning as the twin fires that propelled them forward. At Iris Ovshinsky's memorial service, her grandson recounted his fond memories of cooking with his grandmother while her husband sat in an armchair in the kitchen with his nose buried in a stack of scientific papers. Stan is a germaphobe, it turns out, so when the dynamic cooking duo dropped a potato on the floor the young boy went to throw it in the garbage. Iris Ovshinsky winked and whispered, "put it in the pot!" She knew exactly how to inspire her husband's genius, and also when not to take him too seriously.

The loss of his wife and co-founder had clearly devastated Stan Ovshinsky, but it did not appear to propel him any closer to retirement. He was 84 in late 2006, but he clearly had plenty of unfinished business. He still got up early, dressed in sharp suits, and moved with the agility and energy of a young man. His intellectual curiosity appeared entirely undiminished by a life of learning: his desk at ECD was buried under neat stacks of annotated scientific papers, business plans and other reading material.

And he remained as ambitious as ever. He declared that he had worked out how his next generation of solar films will run not at 2.5 feet per minute, but a hundredfold faster. He was convinced he could radically improve the efficiency of fuel cell electrodes. Within five years, he was sure he could scale up his firm's hydrogen storage tanks to megawatt scale, thus enabling grid storage of renewable power. And so on.

The next American revolution

A powerful grassroots movement is now getting under way that is sparking a great global race to fuel the car of the future. People are increasingly fed up with the car companies and oil titans, and they are all too aware that these industries have lobbied politicians into gridlock over energy policy. Nothing meaningful has been done by our leaders on automobile fuel efficiency, energy taxes, or other means that can level the playing field for clean energy and end our addiction to oil. All of that will change, thanks to the rapidly shifting politics of cars and oil.

As Ovshinsky and his upstart collaborators were busy developing innovative hydrogen technologies for cars, a separate nationwide coalition of companies and local governments was coalescing around the idea of "plug-in" hybrid cars. Unlike the hugely successful Toyota Prius, a hybrid electric car that can never be plugged in, these hybrids charge up a battery overnight that can power the first twenty or thirty miles of travel each day. The rest of the day's travel would use gasoline (or, in the future, hydrogen or ethanol fuel). Woolsey, the former spymaster, thinks this combination of technologies makes possible a car that goes 250 miles per gallon of gasoline — more than ten times as fuel efficient as the typical American car.

The bottom-up clamor for change is spreading. Several dozen cities and counties have already banded together to demand that carmakers produce such cars — and have written commitments from thousands of local companies and government agencies ready to buy such vehicles. Fed up with the federal government's refusal to enact mandatory curbs on greenhouse gases, local and state governments are forging ahead with their own. Revealingly, today's push for cleaning up carbon and cars is a bipartisan movement: its leaders are Republicans like California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York's George Pataki, as well as Democrats like Iowa's Tom Vilsack and Illinois's Barack Obama. Clearly, something really big is going on under the radar.

Call it America's Great Awakening to oil addiction and climate change, the automobile's twin side effects. The attacks of September 11th and the Iraq war reminded Americans of the geopolitical complications involved with petroleum, while the wild price gyrations of the oil market have reminded us of oil's power to shock the world economy. And Hurricane Katrina opened up our eyes to the devastating impact that the mega-storms and global warming of the future could have even on one of our country's most beloved cities. This matters, because while coal is more carbon-intensive than oil, cars are the toughest nut to crack when it comes to climate change. Convincing three hundred million American drivers to kick the oil habit will prove much more difficult than cleaning up a few dozen coal-fired utilities across the country.

Americans are waking up to all this as they realize that the digital age has brought us dramatic advances in fields ranging from biotechnology to cellular telephony and information technology, and yet our cars are still limited to the filthy old combination of gasoline and the internal combustion engine.

As the clamor for clean, carbon-free energy grows, we are at last beginning to see the rumblings of sensible energy policy emerge. We'll explain what our country's real policy and technology options are, debunking myths spouted by left and right and exposing pork-barrel proposals along the way. We'll also put forward an agenda for change: five principles that the next President and Congress should adopt to prepare our country for life after oil.

As this Great Awakening ripples through the political system, it seems likely to transform today's car business beyond recognition in coming years. Unless Detroit and Big Oil start dancing to a new tune, the cars of the future may well be coming to you courtesy of Sony, Apple or Intel. Or perhaps that car will even come from those two teenage whiz kids next door working tirelessly in their garage on the Next Big Thing. After all, that was how Hewlett Packard and Microsoft and Apple got started decades ago, bringing with them the rise of Silicon Valley and the ultimate arrival of the Internet itself.

The world's car and energy industries are now about to undergo a similar transformation, in which they too will leapfrog ahead to the digital age. We reveal the real story of how Toyota beat Detroit, and built a new car industry in America, one that will push Ford and General Motors into bankruptcy — or a radical new path to rejuvenation. America's failure on energy policy speeded this decline and now threatens the nation's very security, as powerful foreign oil companies adapt faster than Exxon and its ilk to a changing world.

International firms are giving America a dose of its own globalizing medicine, taking over autos and oil. US industries are locked in a race to cope with this challenge, yet they lag in facing an even-bigger challenge, to wean cars off oil before many millions of new Chinese and Indian cars turn global warming from a distant threat to a clear and present danger. Detroit has lost the Japanese market challenge: it is about to lose the much more important carbon challenge.

How many planets?

Over half a century ago Mahatma Gandhi asked, "God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West... It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require?" Substitute the superpower and rising giant of today, and you get the one of the great questions of the 21st century: "How many planets will it take if China follows America's resource-intensive path of motorization, industrialization and urbanization?"

After all, the desire for modern transportation does not stop with America: from Brasilia to Bangalore to Beijing, ordinary people are now getting rich enough to afford their own set of wheels for the very first time. That's perfectly understandable, as cars satisfy a basic human desire for freedom and mobility — especially when governments don't put enough thought into sensible urban planning and affordable mass transit. The problem is that if the rest of the world takes to old-fashioned gas guzzlers of the sort Americans now drive rather than leapfrogging ahead to tomorrow's clean cars, the planet's very future may be in peril.

When contemplating Gandhi's question, it is all too easy to despair. Indeed, one gloomy tome after another has been published in recent years pointing to impending crisis, even calamity. These Cassandras typically argue that Asia's inexorable rise will lead to geopolitical wars, climate catastrophes and scarcity of one resource or another — especially petroleum. The authors take these warnings seriously, but put them in the broader context of today's flat world of economic globalization, ubiquitous information and technological innovation.

As history has shown time and again, the world's stock of resources is not fixed over time, thanks to the interplay of economics and technologies. Straight line trends rarely continue in a straight line forever, as the failed forecasts of the Club of Rome revealed. That group of eminent experts predicted back in the 1970s, based on trends of the day, that the world would run out of oil, food and other resources. Once you take account of feedback loops — especially the capacity for society to innovate in response to crises — then disaster can often be avoided. Even the very definition of a resource can change over time, thanks to advancing technology: in 1950, Vermont granite was useless tombstone material, but by 1980 it was a valuable source of uranium for the entirely new industry of nuclear power.

Development is a dynamic dance once markets and technologies are taken into account, with price signals as the key force for change — if governments do not distort that price with subsidies and other perversions. Scarcity breeds crisis breeds substitution and innovation. Disaster is thus often — though not always — avoided.

A new age of energy innovation

The world is at an energy crossroads, and the decisions taken on cars and oil in America and China over the next decade or so will set the course for this coming century. That is because energy infrastructure can last for decades, and the carbon emitted for even longer. If we are to set our energy system on the right course before real crisis hits in a decade or two, we need to start that transition now.

If Chinese drivers take to the roads in SUVs and America does not change, then the world cannot possibly cope with the resultant energy demands or the environmental impacts. On the other hand, if smart energy policies put in place that sweep away the barriers to clean energy, then crisis could turn to opportunity. That is, of course, an ancient Chinese proverb, so perhaps it is no surprise that the Chinese government is already leaping ahead — it is now developing a clean car cluster outside Shanghai that could prove the Detroit of the 21st century, and has fuel economy standards for new cars that are tougher than America's.

Even Detroit could yet prove the Detroit of the 21st century, if locally grown Stan Ovshinsky has his way. It may not happen, and not just because the car giants are intransigent. A prophet is rarely recognized in his hometown, and this energetic messiah is no different. He has been feted by companies and scientists in Europe and Asia as a technology genius, but it has been harder for him to break through into the American corporate or media conscience. Why would a man whose accomplishments have won him such acclaim abroad (PBS's NOVA devoted an entire television program to him titled "Japan's American Genius") remain so unappreciated at home? Ovshinsky shrugs his shoulders and smiles: "I don't give up. I keep doing what I do, and tell them 'Here I am fellas, put me to use.'"

He is an inspiration in his own right, but there is a larger lesson to be drawn from his extraordinary life that is relevant to the future of cars and oil. And despite the persuasive case he makes for it, that lesson is not that the future belongs to hydrogen and only hydrogen. That may well turn out to be right, especially when the hydrogen economy is defined not merely as automotive fuel cells but as a holistic "water to water" energy loop of the future.

Ovshinsky has spent the last five decades inventing actual working products that fill every niche of that "hydrogen loop" for energy. It goes from advanced thin-films solar panels to innovative solid hydrogen storage tanks to unique "regenerative" fuel cells that can store energy captured while braking a car without needing a battery (the Toyota Prius also recaptures the energy dissipated by braking, but uses a battery to do so). ECD has even hacked one of those Prius hybrids so that it runs on pure hydrogen rather than gasoline, which he says proves that "we don't have to wait for fuel cells to move into the hydrogen economy." Validating this important idea that hydrogen need not be held hostage to fuel cells is the new BMW sedan (unveiled in America in 2007) with a "flex-fuel" internal combustion engine that can switch on demand between gasoline and hydrogen—thus showing one way that the chicken-and-egg problem of hydrogen infrastructure could be overcome.

Energy historians do point out that the single most powerful force over the centuries transforming energy systems has been decarbonization: as mankind has evolved from using wood and peat to coal to oil and natural gas and now to hydrogen, we are shifting from carbon-heavy, dirty hydrocarbons to hydrogen-heavy, cleaner ones.

Take the very long view, and hydrogen is clearly the ultimate zero-emission energy carrier. Even so, the more important (and certainly more immediate) lesson to be drawn here is this: Detroit may be down, but it does not have to be out. And it does not have to bow to Japanese or other foreign rivals. For proof, look no further than Akron, Ohio.

Most Americans probably consider Akron the most ordinary of cities, but not Don Plusquellic. The city's popular and long-serving mayor has a vision for transforming the city from a washed-up industrial wasteland into a city of the future. For his efforts, he has already been voted head of the US Conference on Mayors and even America's Mayor of the Year. A few years ago, he thought of putting up solar panels on the roof of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, housed in the city. As he looked into that project, he came across the Ovshinskys. "Meeting them had a huge impact on me," he told Ovshinsky's biographer George Howard, a professor at the University of Notre Dame. "Seeing Stan's hydrogen loop made me think I had actually seen the future. I thought, 'Why not Akron?' Let's get into the hydrogen business."

Why not indeed. It is not only far-flung island states — ranging from Iceland to Hawaii to Vanuatu — concerned about pricey petroleum imports that can embrace a clean hydrogen future. And it is not just hyper-green economies like California and Sweden that can declare a firm goal of becoming completely independent of petroleum. America's industrial heartland can leapfrog ahead too. ECD and Akron have started with hydrogen testing and storage, but the plans go much further. Using the ample water that the city once used to make rubber (back when it was the tire capital of the world), Ovshinsky plans to make hydrogen using the abundant cheap off-peak electricity available from the grid utilities at night. He saw potential for using the city dumps as a source of both biofuel to produce electricity and as a source of methane that can make hydrogen: "We can make Akron the 'Saudi Arabia' equivalent of the world...it'll be a working example of what needs to be, and can be, accomplished throughout the United States."

The key obstacle now is Washington's backward-looking, obstructionist approach to energy — a pork barrel fiesta that Senator John McCain has called the "leave no lobbyist behind" approach. That has led some to despair that anything good can ever come out of Congress on energy, given the power of the oil and car lobbies. Techno-utopians argue that magical new technologies will save us, while market fundamentalists say that the invisible hand will do the trick. Well-intentioned corporations keen on clean energy and carbon-free technologies make the argument that "corporate social responsibility", not public policy, is the key. And small government types were anyway suspicious of Washington.

Even the eternally optimistic Ovshinsky seems to share such doubts. "Forget great ideologies! Politics can't live up to its promise of a better world — but value-driven science and technology can, by improving the material base. The key is practically improving the lives of ordinary people."

Here is why they are wrong. When it comes to the thorny geopolitical, environmental and economic complications involved with cars and oil, America's federal energy policies do matter. The heady mix of perverse subsidies for fossil fuels and absence of proper "externalities" taxation of gasoline leaves the game rigged in favor of Detroit and guarantees continued oil addiction. This will not change magically unless the incentives facing entrepreneurs and innovators change: clean technologies will not get their just rewards in the marketplace, and new markets for carbon-free energy will not take off, unless we fix what's wrong with energy policy so that the playing field is level.

After all, the business of business is business — as it should be. Contrary to what some critics claim, there is nothing inherently evil about oil companies pumping oil or carmakers selling cars. That is, in fact, the fiduciary duty of their managers — and for decades, it was socially acceptable for them to do so. The difference today is that societal expectations are changing: a richer, greener, better informed world is demanding much more from its energy and transport industries. The social contract is evolving — but our public policies have not yet changed to reflect that progress.

That, in sum, is why government still matters. Only sensible and courageous action by government to take account of the external costs of burning oil can set things on the right course. Those external costs are not reflected in the pump price of gasoline, but of course we pay for them through the Pentagon budget, the lives of asthmatic children, and the pain of economic shocks. Only if the federal government spurs change, either through market-based regulation or better yet through oil taxes, will we level the playing field and give clean cars and carbon-free energy a fighting chance

That will happen only if every one of us is ready to abandon the myth of cheap fossil fuels and pay an honest price for gasoline. Obviously, this will not easy. After all, the oldest saying in Washington is that "tax" is a four-letter word. Even so, there are signs that the Great Awakening is changing consumer attitudes on this crucial issue too. Ask ordinary Americans if they will simply support a hike in gasoline taxes, as The New York Times did in 2006, and of course the majority will say No. But when the pollsters asked in a follow-up whether those same people would be willing to support higher gasoline taxes if the money went to reduce oil imports or to tackle global warming, a strong majority responded Yes.

That suggests that the country is just ripe for a new approach to this issue. Americans will follow political leaders with vision and courage, who put forth a comprehensive, bipartisan, long-term strategy to tackle oil addiction and climate change. No one likes to pay taxes, but we do respect straight talk and have always had a strong sense of fair play. If our leaders take the trouble to explain the notion of oil's external harms, and make the case for subsidy and tax reform, citizens will rally to the cause.

And if the next President and Congress really do embrace an innovative policy that levels the energy playing field instead of propping up the tired old giants of the fossil and automobile businesses, then radical change would be possible. Entrepreneurs and innovators would then speed up their current investments, and we could see a technological revolution that makes clean, efficient, and gasoline-free cars possible so that the developing world's legitimate needs for energy and aspirations for mobility can be satisfied while the rich world's concerns about the environment are met too.

But Washington, DC, will act only if ordinary Americans — voters, consumers, drivers one and all — speak up, step out and demand an end to business as usual. As St. Thomas More argued five centuries ago, government is simply too important an enterprise to leave to the scoundrels: it is the duty of honest, everyday folk to get involved and to make sure our country heads in the right direction.

By taking the real problems posed by cars and oil seriously while debunking wild-eyed claims made by the chorus of despair, we hope this book will serve as a call to arms. The challenges are daunting, but the solutions are within grasp if we mobilize and energize the political process in favor of clean energy. Indeed, there is every chance that we can turn this crisis into opportunity, transforming the grease and grime, soot and sulfur industries that built the 20th century into the clean, sustainable building blocks of the 21st century.

The global race to fuel the car of the future is on.

Excerpted from ZOOM: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future by Iain Carson and Vijay Vaitheeswaran. Reproduced with permission from Hachette Book Group, USA: Grand Central Publishing.

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