Automobile 'running on empty'?; Looking up the road ahead; Running on Empty, The Future of the Automobile in an Oil Short World, by Lester R. Brown, Christopher Flavin, and Colin Norman. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. $7 .95.

Is the sun about to set on the Age of the Automobile? Well, maybe not actually set, but there's little doubt that the private automobile, long in the ascendency as the Western world's major mode of transportation, especially in the United States, has lost a lot of its glow.

First, world oil output is expected to soon levle off, thus causing severe short-falls in petroleum supplies for private transportation. And second, global increases are projected in all essential uses of oil, including food production.

"For many third world countries, food production is likely to have the first claim on oil supplies," assert the authors. The basic means for increasing food output -- mechanization, irrigation, and the use of chemical fertilizers -- are all energy-intensive.

Indeed, the long gas lines of a year ago brough the issue instantaneously to the attention of the motorist himself.

In response, Americans have driven the US auto industry against a wall by switching in huge members to foreign-built, high-mileage cars, especially those built in Japan. The devastating switch away from the larger domestically built cars has propelled Detroit into a massive research and development program, costing tens of billions of dollars, to makes its cars more competitive in an energy-short world.

To do less would essentially put the domestic manufacturers out of the car-building business.

Author Brown heads up the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based research organization which is devoted to the analysis of emerging global issues. Messrs. Flavin and Norman are researchers.

If personal mobility is to be maintained in the world, they maintain, all governments will need to encourage the use of fuel-efficient means of transport, such as buses and trains, bicycles and mopeds.

One chapter is entitled "The Handwriting on the Wall." The choices are few, the authors declare.

"Running on Empty" is readable and concise and provides a resonable look at a situation which confronts tens of millions of people all over the world. The authors take a reasonable approach to a very real problem.

"The first 'oil shock' was a warning tremor of tightening oil supplies; the second indicates the time of adjustment has arrived," the authors write. "These shocks do not signal the demise of the automobile, but they do suggest a marked slowdown in the 'automobilization' of the world."

After reading the book, you will probably agree.

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