SEVERAL YEARS AGO, after the OPEC 1973-74 embargo and the food shortage of the same era, Lester Brown predicted that the world would be running out of food at the end of the 1970s. His food prediction was premature to say the least. Now he and his Worldwatch Institute colleagues, Christopher Flavin and Colin Norman, predict trouble for the automobile. The title of their book, Running on Empty, sums up their forecast: a world eager for more mobility via the automobile but without the oil resources to fuel it.

As seen by the authors, the automobile's fate is this: As oil supplies level off and shrink, governments will give priority for oil use to "more essential claimants" such as those "producing food, powering factories, heating homes, and running trucks and buses." Later in the book the issue is further narrowed to a choice between driving and eating as tractors and cars fight it out for the last drops of oil. Much is made of the U.S. decision in early 1979 to allocate scarce fuels to the farmers while the rest of us idled in gasoline lines. As Worldwatchers, the authors do not shrink from giving us the final diagnosis: As fuel dwindles the resulting service station shutdown will stagger the world's largest manufacturing industry -- the automobile companies and their suppliers -- and deny hundreds of millions the benefits (and costs) the automobile has brought to the industrial world.

The Institute's gloomy projection stands or falls on the answers to two questions: (1) Is oil in agriculture likely to compete with automobile use? and (2) Do governments give priority to automobile over non-automobile oil uses?

As part of their argument that the answer to the first question is "yes," and to the second "no," Flavin, Brown and Norman have pointed to developments in the industrial non-communist world. They point out that: 84 percent of the world's automobiles are in the U.S., Canada, western Europe and Japan; there is one car for every two Americans, one car for every three to four Europeans, and one for every five Japanese; the world's auto fleet has seen a threefold increase since 1960 and 100 million to 300 million cars. Certainly auto ownership in this portion of the world is nearing the saturation point. The facts are mind-boggling. But it's easy to get carried away, as Chrysler did, by the automobile mania implicit in them. The authors of this book also appear to have been so diverted that they have forgotten that their argument turns on energy facts, not Car and Driver talk. From an energy perspective Running on Empty has taken the oil problem of the industrial world and stood it on its head.

First, in the industrialized world the automobile does not compete with agriculture. Of the nearly 19 million barrels a day of oil the U.S. consumes, only 600,000 are used in agriculture. Saying cars compete with tractors for U.S. oil is like saying the U.S. competes with Lichtenstein on the world oil market. Improving automobile on-the-road gasoline performance by a single mile per gallon saves the equivalent of all the oil used on America's farms.

Oil used in agriculture is simply not the issue. Oil used by utilities and industries is. Three million barrels per day, roughly one-third the amount used in vehicles, go to such uses. In Europe and Japan an even higher proportion of oil is consumed in non-farm, non-automobile and non-residential uses. Much of the petroleum used in oil-fired boilers and industrial processes could be easily replaced by coal, properly cleaned up with advanced pollution controls. (At least some of the oil diverted from industries and utilities could be used in automobiles, although it would need more severe refining.) Furthermore, the escalation in oil prices for both foreign and domestic crude, has finally made oil use by factories and utilities a bad practice economically. But Running on Empty's authors have missed both these points. They merely state that oil use for factories will have priority, without giving a reason.

It is true that historically, the U.S. has done very little to discourage oil use -- and encourage coal use -- by industry and utilities. So far, all the government has successfully accomplished is legislation prohibiting the use of oil in new utility and industrial boilers. But even less has been done to discourage oil use in the automobile. What little has been done suggests, contrary to Worldwatch's hypothesis, that the auto -- not the tractor or the factory -- has priority. It is the political icon, the untouchable, which always comes first in our national priorities. There may be tens of thousands of factories in the U.S. and maybe as many oil lobbyists, but there are over 100 million cars, and they all are driven by voters.

Brown, Flavin and Norman have been misled, it seems, by the newspaper headlines given last spring to the special gasoline and diesel fuel allocations sought by and given to farmers. That action so neatly linked the Institute's predicted food shortages with the real oil shortages. The battle last spring was between the truckers and the farmers and followed an inept Carter administration effort to gain favor with the farmers. Every oil consumer was short then because of the Iranian crisis. Carter's move gave the appearance that farm use was drawing oil from highway use when in reality Iran was the cause. The political polls show President Carter's steepest decline in popularity occurred during this period when the automobile ran out of gas. After his effort last summer at Camp David to re-establish an energy policy, Carter proposed reducing electric utility oil consumption by 50 percent by 1990. No mention was made of reducing automobile gasoline use or even taxing it.

If the Worldwatch Institute's arguments are wrong about who in the industrialized West will get fuel priority in an oil-scarce world, they are right about the lack in developing countries of foreign exchange sufficient to simultaneously import oil for cars and the goods needed for development. (Thus, Brazil's push for gasohol.) The book also gives a reasoned consideration of alternatives to the internal-combustion engine, including a hardheaded review of the potential for battery cars, mass transit, gasohol, and synthetic fuels. "In spite of the enthusiasm for electric vehicles," they write, "they are not yet close to challenging automobiles powered by internal-combustion engines."

But the book fails to identify the U.S.'s most pressing gasoline problem: miles per gallon (mpg) slippage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's tests of mpg performance, which are posted by the Department of Transportation on our new cars, may show 22 mpg, but we know what we experience is closer to 18 mpg. Remember, a one mpg "slip" equals the total oil consumption by U.S. farmers. DOT is also taking a lenient approach to regulating the light and medium duty truck and van segment of the market, the fastest growing vehicle sales category. Detroit is hoodwinking its regulators. The Worldwatch Institute should have pointed to this rather than giving its condolences to General Motors for spending, what for them is a rather modest sum of $2.7 billion over several years developing the "X" car. While Chrysler falters, GM is not even breathing hard. But despite slippage, automobile gasoline demand is leveling off because of mpg gains, and we've yet to see the diesel car in significant numbers. If the mpg regulators were as tough as the OPEC pricesetters, gasoline demand would drop significantly by 1985.

The author's assessment of the Soviet Union is seriously flawed. They write: "Within the Soviet Union, which is currently an oil surplus, food deficient country, the choice is between automobiles and food." Not so. The Soviet choice is between devoting its might to maintaining a costly military establishment or developing its vast resources for consumption by its people. If the Soviets shifted resources from the military to energy development, they could generate enough foreign exchange to buy both food and automobile factories.

Overall, this book is a disappointment. It alleges rather than reasons. It grasps for the dramatic rather than analzing facts. A review of the author's sources reveals part of the problem. Few investigative reports have relied so heavily on newspaper clippings. This book is really worthwhile only for those who, since the oil embargo of 1973-74, have read neither The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or other newspapers of similar caliber.