The electric car might just be the most difficult mechatronic challenge ever.
I moved to Denver Colorado in 1990 to become part of the electric car industry. I worked really hard because I believed then, as I do now, that the electric car was something we all needed. And we still do. I didn’t care (and don’t care now) if it’s a hybrid or pure electric, although a pure electric is a much more difficult technical challenge.
The company I worked for was doing advanced motor and drive development specifically for the electric vehicle. Their perspective was that you could solve the mechatronic problem with high efficiency brushless dc motor technology. That also meant you had to create a special power electronics solution for that motor. It got kind of messy. A motor winding for which there was no known manufacturing process. Custom 45KW analog power electronics with water cooling. Cutting edge stuff.
We produced some major milestones. One was a Chrysler Town and Country mini-van hybrid electric. I was asked to show the car at the first Denver Grand Prix. I got to drive the car home each day from the Grand Prix. The car was very heavy and didn’t have a lot of acceleration, so making the climb from downtown Denver at 5250 feet of altitude to my home in Lakewood at 6200 feet of altitude was a bit of a strain on the car.
The car was not heavily marked but it did say hybrid on it. I got mixed reactions from people passing me on the freeway. Some gave me the finger for slowing traffic, some leaned out of their cars and applauded that we had something that worked.
So imagine my surprise when I found the new Chrysler Hybrid SUV specs on their website with virtually the same specs as the vehicle I drove home every day from the Denver Grand Prix. WOW! What a flashback. It”s like Deja Vu all over again!
I am having a problem with what to think about it. Yes, the engineering is better than what we were able to get done in 1990. We didn’t have lithium batteries or millions of dollars to work with.
A lot of people shelled out their hard earned cash to fund a little startup that would be the only company in the US with a Hybrid vehicle that was qualified for the Los Angeles Clean Air Initiative. LA issued a contract for 10,000 vehicles that no one ever got to build. No one in Detroit would work with us to provide rolling platforms. The DOE ignored us and paid hundreds of millions to Ford who delivered practically nothing in the 1990’s.
So what took so long? You tell me. Was it 2 years of $4. a gallon gasoline that changed people’s mind about the importance of the electric car? Was it the exodus of new car sales that currently has Detroit in a funk? Was it the threat Middle Eastern terrorism after 9/11 ?
I don’t know. Maybe things just take time. 17 years? Maybe being an innovator is a difficult path to tread. Platitudes.
Innovation is a gift that we need to encourage. It’s still the best answer in tough times.