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Dr. Paul MacCready with GM Sunraycer
Dr. Paul MacCready with the car that started it all, the GM Sunraycer. The success of this solar-powered car in the race from Darwin to Adelaide, Australia in 1987 opened up the door for the development of the car that would become the EV1.

The Soul in the EV Machine

Part two of 1999 interview with Aerovironment founder , chairman and the father of the modern electric car

By Bill Moore

Editor's Note: I conducted this interview with Dr. MacCready in 1999, at the height of electric car use 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 are reprinting this two-part interview.

To Part One

"The thought of having a limp, four-door vehicle that would do a poor job substitution for your average four, six passenger sedan type vehicle had no sales appeal to it. It might make some sense, but it just wouldn't sell," explained Dr. Paul B. MacCready, the chairman of Aerovironment. This was the reason GM chose to go with MacCready's proposal to build a two seat electric sports car code named, "Santana." The success of the Santana would lead directly to the development of the GM Impact, later renamed the EV1, the first car line to bear the GM name.

"However," he continued in the second half of his interview with EV World, " if you made something that was really outstanding in some category that beat regular cars and got away from the perception of an overgrown golf cart, then there might be some chance of doing it. If we had suggested a heavier, poorer performing car, there would not have been a project."

And outstanding the Santana was. MacCready's team at Aerovironment came up with a specification that definitely interested General Motor's senior management. Here would be an EV with sports car performance (0 to 60 mph in under 8 seconds), the drag coefficient of a jet fighter (.19), a range of 120 miles (if driven conservatively) and a top speed of over 180 mph (officially 183.22 mph but electronically limited to 80 mph).

"I think," said MacCready, "it is the only type of vehicle that could have served as a catalyst for this field."

We Needed A Resident Psychiatrist...
Winning the contract to build the Santana was one thing, actually getting it built in just over a year and a half was quite another as MacCready freely admitted.

"There was a lot of entanglements on the configuration and aerodynamics at the beginning where GM people and their advanced concept center and aerodynamics types and styling types had one approach where their training emphasized very much the style, and Aerovironment had a brutal, its-gotta-function and we'll do anything to get the low drag coefficient even if it doesn't look all that great. But of course if you've got an ugly car, it never has any future, any how. So it had to be a comprise, and it was a bloody, unpleasant interaction to try and sort these differences of opinion out and the project almost evaporated because of it.

"Finally... we needed a resident psychiatrist just to handle it all, but we had a few. It finally ended up that we got the drag coefficient we needed. As it often happens when you keep demanding function, it ended up beautiful. So it's a very jazzy-looking vehicle and we ended up delighted with the styling people at GM and they ended up delighted with us by the time that it was done, but it was very difficult along the way..."

The battle over styling wasn't the only hurdle the Aerovironment/GM team had to surmount. MacCready went on to explain that they had to conduct numerous wind tunnel tests before they finally settled on the planeform of the EV1 with its Citroen-like wheel layout where the rear wheels are set narrower than the front.

Shifting Paradigms At GM
In one of the great ironies of the EV1 story, the original charging system on the Santana was based on the conductive system. According to GM's MagneCharge program manager, David Ouwerkerk this approach let Aerovironment combine the charging system into the onboard power electronics. While this approach saved weight, it also created the potential of dangerous electric shock in certain situations. So, GM abandoned it in favor of the inductive approach.

MacCready explained, "We're not trying to solve the industry's commercialization thing, we're trying to build in a very short time a demonstrator that would go zero to 60 in under 8 seconds, to have a range of even a 120 miles if you drive at a {moderate) speed without the stop and go. It met all those requirements..."

According to MacCready, part of the reason for GM throwing its support behind the Impact and its innovative inductive charging system was to "do something new and different."

"...General Motors was perceived from outside and inside as being a bit stodgy, inertia-ridden while Japanese companies were busy running faster. And here was a chance to do something truly new where if you get into production, every piece of that car was new. You couldn't use an old crankshaft, bearing, engine block, anything from a previous car. You used new materials, manufacturing processes, and it was a major, very difficult challenge for GM and the value was considered at high levels very much for helping move GM towards the kind of development philosophy and techniques that would be a necessary part of the future. As a business investment just to sell Impact cars, you couldn't justify it on that. But as a paradigm shift for the corporation, you could. I think people when look back they will find that it was very helpful that way."

It must be noted that the very same Japanese car companies (with the exception of Honda) that GM set out originally to challenge have now bought into the inductive charging system championed by General Motors. So, in this respect, GM proved prescient.

I Don't Think They Knew What To Do With It
As the Santana project wound down, Aerovironment suggested to GM that it would be to everyone's benefit if the relationship begun with the Sunraycer and carried over into the Santana program could be continued beyond the end of the contract. Aerovironment could retain the trained staff of engineers they'd hired and GM would have access to the company's unique engineering and test facilities. GM management agreed and bought 15% interest in Aerovironment which continues to do research and testing for the giant car maker.

When Aerovironment finally delivered the car and Roger Smith had a chance to drive it, MacCready said that everyone at GM was very pleased with, but that, "I don't think they knew what to do with it." That all changed on Earth Day in 1990 when Roger Smith announced to the world that GM would, within a few years, build a commercial version of the Impact, as it was now called.

This decision came as a real surprise to MacCready who felt that there should have been more development stages and that it should have been kept under wraps rather than make the program public.

Looking Beyond the EV1
"The one great thing this whole electric car mandate in California has done," MacCready observed, "it's got people to start... thinking more broadly about what is mobility and what do we need. Gee, adding a zero emission car that maybe doesn't take any energy to the car fleet of California, doesn't do anything for pollution. Getting rid of an old car that's polluting a lot, that helps. But one more nice car just adds to traffic and parking problems. We have to look at the whole system of mobility rather than just a vehicle."

"When I give talks, I say that if everybody had a Massaratti that runs on Cold Fusion, would that be good? No, you'd have one big traffic jam. You'd look like Bangkok. So you have to look at mobility in broader terms including telecommuting where you don't go, you don't use any energy; land use planning, where the suburbs are, car pooling, mass transit, life style. You find yourself asking... you're talking about really big issues. Why are we here? What's the meaning of life? There are no simple answers. You can make a better car, but as long as we give gasoline away in the United States, we don't care about efficiency, who really wants an electric car?"

MacCready believes that as long as the cost of gasoline represents only 15% of the life cycle costs of a vehicle there won't be much of a market for more energy efficient vehicles. Instead, he thinks we need to take a more fundamental view of mobility, how to economically provide it to everyone so that, for example in Los Angeles, we don't allocate 70% of the land for transportation infrastructure.

"These are big issues," he stated," and just drawing on the thinking of the past, attitudes of the past, and thinking, 'Gee, how do we make a better car?' I think is very short-sighted. You draw back and say how do we provide people safe mobility of a type they really need and want."

MacCready believes that the current craze for sport utility vehicles, or what he characterizes as "small tanks," is approaching the problem incorrectly. These vehicles are designed with the idea of collisions in mind. Instead, if we had "road" which precluded collisions, we could concentrate on building much more efficient vehicles.

He also thinks that global climate change is a very real phenomenon, which is driving the investment in alternative energy and more efficient vehicles.

Visit the Academy of Achievement for exclusive interviews and photos of Paul MacCready.

Times Article Viewed: 6768
Published: 28-Jun-2006

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