The fathers of the hybrid car
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The fathers of the hybrid car

The genesis of the Petro-Electric Motors Ltd. hybrid car

In October of 1974 I gave a talk on hybrid vehicles at the Society of Automotive Engineers in Toronto. At the time my associate Victor Wouk and I had just finished having the EPA test the hybrid vehicle we had built. I would like to put together the story of how this full-sized and full-powered vehicle came about because I think there are lessons to be learned for promoting future development of new technology. I do not have detailed notes of everything that took place and depend on my memory.

Victor and I did not build the hybrid as a result of sitting down and asking what we could do to reduce pollution, but rather as result of coming together of a complex series of events:

“¢ Contract research financing

“¢ Loss of financing

“¢ Downturn in the job-market

“¢ Confluence of proper people and experience

“¢ Contact that opened doors

“¢ Insights into outside-the-box solutions

The story of how and why the first full sized-full powered hybrid vehicle was built is not as glamorous as you might think. Circumstances rather than insight were the crucial factors in its construction.

The story began around 1965. Victor sold his business to Gulton Industries and was retained by it as a consultant. Victor was well-known in the electric-car field. Gulton Industries, a manufacturer of rechargeable nickel cadmium batteries, had a contract with an American car company to build and electric car using nickel cadmium batteries. I was appointed to head the Electric Car Department and Victor Wouk was to be the outside consultant on the project. I don’t remember all the details of what was accomplished on the project, but at some point the outside funding on the project stopped. Gulton Industries was quite happy to use outside funding to develop electric vehicles but would not use its own money. Therefore it abandoned the project, at which time Victor and I left Gulton Industries and went our separate ways.

As a senior investigator for companies that were part of the military-industrial complex, I was familiar with how to use the Federal Register to apply for government contracts and was pretty good at it. I started a consulting practice under the name Advanced Automotive Associates to develop ideas and write proposals for government contracts. One of these ideas was for a hybrid vehicle for which I received a United States Patent # 3,791,473. During one of our conversations, Victor suggested that it made more sense for us to work together rather than compete for the limited opportunities available in the low-pollution-vehicle field. Victor would fund the venture and that I would bring the patent I was applying for and my expertise to it.

At the beginning, our interest in electric vehicles was based mainly on the desire to reduce pollution produced by the inefficient gasoline automotive engines. Our vision at the time was that it would be easier to monitor and control pollution at a “central electric generating” facility than in individual automobiles. Victor truly believed in electric vehicles as the best means of controlling pollution. I was more ambivalent. I saw electric vehicles as incompatible with the American lifestyle. While at Gulton Industries, I pointed out that buying a car was a complex decision. There were many factors that were part of the final result. For example, United Parcel had a fleet of electric trucks that delivered packages in New York well into the 1940s. They changed to internal combustion engines because an internal combustion engine truck could be used for local as well as long distance deliveries. So while an electric car could full fill 80 percent to 90 percent of the driving needs for Americans, they would need another car to get from the suburbs to grandma’s house in the city.

While at Gulton I began thinking about ideas for full-sized full-powered cars that Americans would actually buy. I thought of reducing the size of the gasoline engine (thus reducing pollution) and replacing the generator that cars had with a larger motor that would assist the engine during peak performance needs (e.g., accelerating and passing at high speed, etc.) and recharge the batteries by recovering braking energy when slowing down and idling.

When I saw a request for proposals by the EPA in the Federal Register I recognized an opportunity to satisfy both our points of view. I convinced Victor that we could build a full-sized full-powered electric car that had a small gasoline engine on board to keep the batteries fully charged – a so-called hybrid or an electric car combined with a gasoline car – that would meet all the requirements of the EPA RFP. I started to write the proposal to the EPA. It took some time for us to complete the proposal, but we won an award to build a hybrid car based on it. The award contained no money for building prototypes. The EPA’s concept was that once they certified the feasibility of such a car to meet pollution requirements, the free enterprise system would pick up the ball and produce the cars.

Unfortunately, we were the first out there with a usable hybrid. There was no comparable car and we became victims of what I came to call the “yabut” syndrome. Victor, using his reputation and contacts, was able to get us venture capitalists to talk to. Each group we contacted would say they were impressed with the car but (yabut) you lose some trunk space with the extra batteries. Or yabut what if we want a larger car. At some point I realized this was a never-ending process and that there would always be another yabut.

Money constraints, lack of resources, and poor communications between the principals led to some bad decisions regarding strategy and equipment. Victor was the financial backer and essential outside man and the designer of all the electrical parts in the project, while I took care of the conceptual aspects of the program, the gasoline engine, and the integration of the two power sources. Victor’s financial contribution and contacts were critical factors in our ability to pursue this project. His brother Herman Wouk was very helpful in introducing us to various people.

The construction of the hybrid vehicle started with Victor purchasing a Buick Skylaark vehicle and two 20-horsepower electric motors. Victor got the Mazda corporation to donate a highly polluting Wankel engine for our project (an example of poor communication – this highly polluting engine was a bad choice). We parked the Buick Skylark in my garage in Teaneck and sketched out a design for the prototype on my kitchen table. Victor then found a repair shop in Totawa, owned by a race car driver who was willing to undertake removing the factory engine and replacing it with the Wankel engine and electric motor. This was no easy feat, and many problems ensued. Victor was also able to contact General Motors to allow us to have its staff assist us in solving some of our technical problems. As an example, when the car accelerated to over 50 miles per hour, the drive shaft hit a resonant frequency and began to oscillate like a violin string – sometimes so violently that it bumped against the pavement. The General Motors staff walked me through damping out the frequency differences between the two power sources, eliminating the problem.

The communications between Victor and me were such that more often than not I was unaware of what was happening on the outside.

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