Dr. Paul MacCready -- EV1 Soul Man
By Bill Moore
Publisher’s Note: I conducted this interview with Dr. MacCready in 1999, at the height of electric car initiative in California when there were some 4-5,000 battery vehicles in the hands of fleets and private owners. In honor of Dr. MacCready and Aerovironment's contribution to advancing electric-drive technology, and to commemorate the premiere of Chris Paine’s documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?", we decided to reprint this two-part, archived interview .
I think every one of us has people we admire and hope to meet some day. Dr. Paul B. MacCready is just such a person for me. He can rightly be called the "spirit" behind the modern electric vehicle.
His personal journey toward this distinction began not in a garage or on a race track somewhere, but in the air. It was MacCready's experience with solar electric systems and aerodynamics that directly lead to development of the modern electric car.
In 1977, his Gossamer Condor -- which hangs in the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum -- accomplished one of mankind's most long-sought achievements: human-powered flight. It was quickly followed by the Gossamer Albatross, the first human-powered aircraft to cross the English Channel.
The pioneering work of Dr. MacCready and his Monrovia, California-based company, Aerovironment, culminated in the Solar Challenger, the first aircraft powered entirely by the light of the sun which flew from Paris to England in 1981.
So how does the consummate aerodynamicist get from solar planes to electric cars?
"The airplanes put a big focus on efficiency," MacCready explained. "A human is a pretty heavy, inefficient power source putting out for a period of minutes a quarter to a third of a horsepower, so you really get to thinking about efficiency, and finding to your amazement that you can make vehicles do things on low power more than one realized." MacCready also credits his involvement in the International Human-Powered Vehicle Association, "which emphasized no rules, just go as fast as you can peddling a bike-like device." These vehicles were getting up to 55 mph (88 km/hr) which has since be increased to 68 mph (108.8 km/hr).
Having no rules and the freedom to experiment, MacCready was able to look all options including electric motors, servos, and solar cells, all with the aim of "doing more with less," as he put it.
This "doing more with less" approach directly contributed to MacCready and company getting the call to build the solar-powered Sunraycer for GM in 1987.
"It was really quite logical," MacCready said, "that we were able to jump into the Sunraycer when asked by GM. In fact, when I look back at that moment, probably little Aerovironment with its odd bits of experience behind it was probably the best group in the world to do a solar-powered car."
In a twist of fate, Aerovironment became the program managers, system integrators, and builders for the Sunraycer. According to MacCready, then-GM president Roger Smith had received an invitation for the grueling race across Australia some months before approaching MacCready. "It was not GM's type of business and it had a lot of other problems then and it ended up on the desk of the head of Hughes (Electronics) at the time." Eventually the invitation found its way to the desk of Howard Wilson, a vice president at Hughes. It was through a mutual acquaintance that MacCready was invited to meet with Wilson and discuss the project. As MacCready recalls it, that meeting took place in either March or April of 1987 with the race scheduled in the Fall of that year in distant Australia. Bob Stempel, Bob Eaton and Smith, all agreed to back the project giving Aerovironment, which MacCready characterized as a "little skunk works", $3 million dollars to build the car, a figure he charactizes as "loose change" to GM.
"A very big aspect of this was Bob Stempel's very strong dedication to education. Right at the beginning... he emphasized that the project he felt would be very good for convincing many students that engineering really could be fun, worthwhile and be exciting, and he felt that would be the big value of it. As it turned out, I sure think he was right. General Motors spent much more money during the next few years on the educational derivatives... send the Sunraycer around... then they did on the project itself. So education was a very big part of it and GM like a lot of big companies are concerned about education systems and wanting to get people turned on to... being excited about engineering."
MacCready went on to point out that many schools have now integrated electric vehicle development into their engineering studies and that when car companies come looking for new engineering prospects, they often will interview only those students have had hands-on experience with building EV demonstrators.
The Joy and Profits of Squeezing Through A 6 Month Window
The ink had barely dried on the agreement with GM, when Aerovironment began work on the Sunraycer. As MacCready explained it, projects of this nature are usually developed in a serial sequence of events, A then B then C. But the rapidly narrowing window of time to build the car, test it and ship it to Australia required his team develop components for the car in parallel.
By the time the car was ready to ship "Down Under" it had been thoroughly tested, including some 4,000 miles of on the road testing.
"We could have make it a bit more efficient," he said, " cut the aerodynamic drag, cut the mechanical drag by 10% or 20%, gone a little faster, but we chose not to waste time doing that. We felt it was fast enough to win. What was important was reliability, so we kept testing and testing trying to get anything to break and all of it turned out to be very good."
The Sunraycer was indeed very good, good enough to quite literally race away from the competition with an average speed, MacCready recalled, of about 42 mph (72 km/hr) with the closest competitor two full days behind. As MacCready observed, operating a solar-powered car is much like sailplane flying. Because the car's power comes from the photovoltaic cells affixed to its upper surface, and its reserve battery pack, the team had to carefully analyze their energy needs in the present and the future. Knowing the weather down the road was important.
"It actually was very much like sailplane flying where you go through a lot of statistical estimates and calculations about what you're going to do next because what you do now is determined somewhat by what you're going to encounter an hour or two or three hours later which can only be predicted with some inaccuracy. The whole thing was kind of fun and demanding, but as a race we were two days ahead of the next car by the time the thing was over. So it was not a close or exciting race from that standpoint."
"I find being in the pioneering era of some activity is the most exciting time. Everything you turn over, you find a new bug under it. If you're an explorer of a new area, you don't need good eye sight to find a mountain. There it is, you're the first ones there. So it was really fun getting involved in it and having General Motors let us do things right rather than having to skimp on this and that, or worry about production capabilities eventually. We just focused on THE goal which was winning the competition and out of it came much more value than we had expected."
MacCready explained that having such a narrow development window actually was a plus for the project because it forced the company to be very focused. In addition, GM had added a motivating caveat to their agreement. Win the race and Aerovironment would receive a substantial bonus. Lose the race and they'd hardly cover their expenses.
"These were somewhat dark years for GM," he stated, "and winning the race and the associated publicity was about the first really bright thing that had happened to GM in some time, so it was exciting all around."
One Thing Leads To Another... But Not Necessarily In That Order
Interestingly, the idea for the electric car that eventually became the GM Impact, and later renamed (thankfully) the EV1, actually preceded the Sunraycer by a full year.
"About a year before the Sunraycer project began, we at Aerovironment, Alex Brooks and I were acquainted with a couple of people at JPL (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena)... where they were working on advanced lead acid batteries... and we were kicking around a bunch of ideas and realized that if you took the best technologies on aerodynamic drag, structures, tire drag, electronics, batteries... you could have a battery-powered car that had pretty good performance. We submitted a proposal to General Motors to develop such a demonstrator, but they'd never heard of Aerovironment and they weren't much interested in the business, so of course we got turned down and left it on the back burner."
"Then the Sunraycer project took place and suddenly we gained respectability," MacCready observed. "They knew about Aerovironment and when you're doing a project that deals with the total company image, corporate image of GM, you get acquainted with the chairman, the president, the senior vice president where a project of that size would be down about seven levels. So then we revisited this concept of a battery-powered car and submitted a new proposal to General Motors in... (1988) sometime, but now our credentials at been established and it went through the right routes."
MacCready credits the shepherding of his reborn "Santana" (as the prototype was then known) proposal through the layers of GM management to Howard Wilson at Hughes Electronics. He was the key person contact person for GM in the Sunraycer project and knew how to move the proposal along to the right players within the world's largest corporation. It would not be a slam-dunk like the Sunraycer.
"I think they really didn't believe that the specs could be met, the schedule could be met and there were a lot of stresses along the way in the project, and it had to involve, although it was still our program management, design, systems engineering, component building, etc., involved more GM people... providing the kind of motor they liked, dealing with vehicle dynamics... It was a bit more of a team effort that got going. Everyone on the outside was surprised the project did come in in the required time and got introduced January 3rd, at a press conference in 1990.. that (Roger) Smith presided, at which he said he was worried about presenting a new technology to the world because auto industry had found in the past that when they described a new, upcoming technology, they quickly find it regulated, 'but anyhow, here it is, the electric car.'"
Smith would then announce on Earth Day, 1990 that GM would turn the Santana into a production vehicle and shortly thereafter the California Air Resources Board issued its now famous Zero Emission Mandate, a measure MacCready finds very flawed, but with some redeeming value.
"When you look at the big picture, it was a wonderful thing to have happen, because I don't care whether it's a mandate or a rule that's flawed a bit, if it gets things happening, it's very worthwhile. There's this huge mass of development going on around the world in electric, hybrid, alternative... vehicles that I think is a very important thing for society to be doing."
Coming Up Next Week...
In part two of our interview, Dr. MacCready talks in more detail about the development of the Santana and his views of our transportation future.
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