AC Propulsion – The Quiet Revolutionaries
By Forbes Black
When most people think of the "big names" in the electric vehicle (EV) industry, they think of media darlings such as Tesla, Mini and GM. Most people do not realize that all of these companies rely on AC Propulsion (ACP), a small R&D and prototyping firm in San Dimas, California, for many of the core technologies which make their EVs great.
From the GM Impact, which evolved into the EV1, the first production electric vehicle available in the USA, to the Tesla Roadster supercar, ACP engineers and designs have provided the technological groundwork that made these vehicles possible. The company has quietly guided many or most of the technical innovations which have made EVs a reality today. Modern EV drivetrains, controls, battery packs and charging systems all rely on ideas and designs pioneered by ACP.
To get more information on ACP’s connections to other EV projects, I interviewed Tom Gage, the company’s President and CEO. He was kind enough to elaborate on some of the ways in which ACP has helped make various EVs a reality. His answers were informative, gracious and intriguing.
Q: Please list any electric vehicles or related projects which are currently using at least some technology licensed from or provided by AC Propulsion?
A: BMW MINI E and eBox are well known. Luxgen (Yulon Group in Taiwan) has been announced. Tesla are using their own technology but, of course, it evolved from what we licensed to them.
Q: Are you working on any other EV projects which you are not allowed to discuss due to confidentiality agreements with client companies?
A: There are two active OEM investigations that have not been announced, and three programs with start up EV businesses. Beyond that we get several inquiries every month from all over the world.
Q: What was the first project in which ACP worked with a client company to produce an EV, an EV component, or equipment used to support EVs?
A: In 1993 and 1994, shortly after our founding in 1992, we worked separately with Volvo, Hyundai, Honda and the South African utility, Eskom. All of these programs involved development or testing of EV conversions or components.
Q: Please describe the links between ACP and the GM Impact. What current or past members of the ACP team were involved in the creation of the Impact?
A: The GM Impact program grew out of the successful collaboration between Aerovironment and GM on the SunRaycer solar EV racecar that won the big solar car race in Australia by a margin of something like two or three days. That was maybe 1987 or 1988. For that project, Alec Brooks of Aerovironment had recruited Alan Cocconi to do work on the power system including motor, inverter, and solar control. Based on the success of the Sun Raycer, Alec Brooks pitched an EV program to GM, GM bought it, and the program that became the GM Impact, and then eventually the EV1 was started. Again Alan Cocconi joined the Aerovironment team and was responsible for the motor and other drive system components and also participated in the overall efficiency development of the vehicle.
During the Impact development, Alan met Paul Carosa, a power electronics engineer at Hughes, then a GM subsidiary, who was involved in the project. Once GM committed to develop the Impact for production as an internal GM program, Alan left the project to continue working independently. By 1992 he had founded AC Propulsion with Wally Rippel, an Aerovironment engineer who had also worked on the Impact. Alan soon recruited Paul Carosa and Dave Sivertsen, a friend from Caltech, and the core team of AC Propulsion was in place.
Wally had to leave ACP to go back to Aerovironment. He eventually went to Tesla, and recently came back ACP. Alec Brooks later joined ACP for awhile, then went back to Aerovironment, then to Tesla, and is now at Google. Alan is retired from daily business at ACP but maintains regular contact, and his original vision is still a driving force behind ACP. Paul and Dave continue as the lead engineers at ACP.
Q: How would you describe the technological and conceptual relationship between the ACP tzero and the Tesla Roadster?
A: In late 2002, Martin Eberhard had come to ACP to buy a tzero. This was during the time we were developing the Li Ion battery for the tzero. In fact he paid us a deposit on a tzero and actually invested some money in ACP, and those funds helped pay for the tzero Li Ion development and prototype. When that car 1) drove from LA to SF to compete in the 2003 Michelin Challenge Bibendum, 2) earned the best score in the Challenge competing against major automakers, and 3) achieved 300 mile range on one leg of the return trip to LA, it validated the Li Ion concept for ACP and increased Martin's determination to own a tzero. When we told him that the tzero was too difficult to build and we would not build any more, he was disappointed but undaunted. He and Marc Tarpenning founded Tesla and in short order recruited Ian Wright to join them.
During this phase, ACP loaned the tzero to Tesla for further evaluation and study, and for three months it was subjected to "test drives," in untold number and severity, from Tesla's first office in Menlo Park up the mountain to Skyline Boulevard where both Martin and Ian lived. The tzero was never quite the same after this ordeal, but it had confirmed the viability in the Tesla founders’ minds, of what they were about to undertake.
With their first funding they came to ACP and we negotiated a license agreement under which we transferred our drive system technology to Tesla. Based on this they designed the drive system that went in the first Tesla Roadsters. The performance of that car (and the fees and royalty payments we have received from Tesla) are a source of great satisfaction to ACP.
Q: The ACP eBox is an electric vehicle that does it all. It is practical and fast. It has great range, and it is relatively affordable. Yet it gets very little media attention when compared to other electric vehicles. Why is that?
A: The eBox is built and sold as a conversion, and as such it's cost is quite high, about $70,000 for the car and conversion. That has limited demand and production volume, and perhaps more important, has caused the eBox to be dismissed as unreal, or not serious by commentators and journalists. Although many companies are talking about selling lower cost EVs "soon", right now, it is the cheapest EV you can drive, not counting limited performance EVs. On a per seat basis, it is about 1/3 the cost of a Tesla. Even more amazing, on a variable cost basis, we make a profit.
Q: Your eBox design was based around the first-generation Scion xB. You have stated that the second-generation xB is too heavy to be the platform for the next-generation eBox. Have you identified any other production vehicles that could serve as the platform for an ACP electric conversion? If so, do you have any plans to produce a next-generation ACP conversion vehicle?
A: We are constantly evaluating new models as EV conversion candidates. Right now, I personally like the Fiat 500 and Ford Fiesta, but we believe the conversion approach only makes sense working with the vehicle manufacturer in order to control costs. So the next generation EV is likely to be based on a good business relationship as well as on an attractive vehicle platform.
Q: Tell us a bit about the Mini E project, please. Did you have a good working relationship with BMW/Mini? What lessons did you learn?
A: Our relationship with BMW was and continues to be excellent. It has generated great benefits for both sides and now ACP and BMW are both closer to the goal of commercializing electric vehicles. For ACP's part, the greatest lesson we learned is how much talent and resources a car company can focus on a project if it really wants to.
Q: Do you have plans for any other collaborative projects "in the works?"
A: We do.
Q: What do you see as ACP's role in EV development now and in the future?
A: We have exciting and leading edge technology for a growing market, and we are profitable. Those things are what the EV business needs.
Q: Are there any other current ACP projects which you would like to mention?
A: We continue to develop our tzero(tm) technology. We are working on a smaller electronics package that will work with our new higher power motor (we've seen 300 hp on the dyno). We also are making good progress, working with cell suppliers in bringing down the cost of traction batteries for EVs. That's not super sexy, but it's really the most important thing for the market.
Finally, we are really getting some traction with V2G. In the last month, I've had discussions about V2G projects in Beijing, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Holland, and Singapore, not to mention Delaware, Texas, and Colorado. I am even seeing a glimmering of interest here in California.
Q: What else would you like to say?
A: All along, ACP has had a very encouraging response from all of our customers and other people who drive EVs. As we talk to more and more MINI E drivers they too are confirming that people just like EVs. They work, and they are a kick to drive. It's in the political arena where there seems to be a paralysis that is preventing effective action. For energy policy, we need to 1) agree that some alternative fuels are better than others, 2) dismiss the dreamers and corn growers and choose the right fuels for the future, and 3) get down to Electric Avenue.
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