Clare Bell: The EV Vet
While the "veterinarian" performs surgery, the bird's owner hovers nearby. "Will she live, doctor?" The reply comes instantly: "Yeah, she'll live."
How can this vet be so sure? Simple: this is the "EVeterinarian" to electric vehicles-and the bird being worked on is "EleDuck," the bright yellow Corbin Sparrow of Kaitlin "Duck" Sherwood. The operating room is a garage in Palo Alto; the tools come in a toolkit instead of a sterile tray; and the patient, EleDuck, is a 1350-pound one-person three-wheeler that has some electrical problems but is nowhere near death.
EleDuck's batteries have been overheating, and today's first task is to install a temperature sensor. Clare Bell, the EVet, talks to EleDuck as if it were alive. "C'mon, babycakes!" Groans emerge from under the dashboard as the vet coaxes a wire into place. She squeezes herself between the steering wheel and the solid mass of car batteries housed under the seat. "C'mon, you little stinker. Go, go, go, GO!" A last tug and the wire yields.
It's another successful operation for Bell, who, as a woman in the auto industry, is as rare as the vehicles she lovingly keeps on the road. Like electric vehicles, she has survived despite the odds. And, like EVs, she now finds herself at a critical juncture, hoping her passion for clean cars will carry her through.
But Bell hasn't always been under the hood. "I grew up in Palo Alto-not quite the People's Republic of Berkeley, but close! My stepfather took me to anti-war rallies in the '60s, and my mother comes from coal country in the north of England, one of the first badly polluted areas in the world. I was a tomboy, and I liked cars, but I was aware from a pretty early age that cars weren't environmentally benign."
So tinkering with cars was out, but electric cars seemed different. "It was during the Gulf War, and I had been driving my little Nissan Sentra to peace rallies sporting a peace flag, feeling like a hypocrite. Burning gas going to peace rallies!" Determined to make her actions match her words, Bell took advantage of her electrical engineering training and built her first electric car-- from a kit purchased out of the Whole Earth Catalog-- in the garage of her incredulous boyfriend.
Lightning Bug, the dune buggy-style result, was soon joined by a Porsche 914 conversion, and hobby became job as word of her engineering talents spread. Since then she has worked for a Who's Who of electric car manufacturers, including Green Motorworks; the Pivco City Bee station car program in Alameda, California; Ford's Th!nk Nordic division (the successor to the City Bee); and most recently, Corbin Motors, creators of the Sparrow.
Dressed in dirty jeans and sneakers, her wispy hair shoved under a baseball cap, Bell seems like she'd have no problem fitting into the auto industry. Yet despite her appearance, and despite her list of advanced degrees (including mechanical engineering from Stanford), it hasn't been easy. At Ford's Th!nk Nordic factory in Norway, Bell found herself one of very few women-and when she disagreed with the head of the Th!nk electrical department, she had very little support. In the resulting power struggle, Bell lost.
At Corbin Motors, makers of the Sparrow, electrical safety caused repeated concerns. "The biggest shock I got when I came to Corbin was finding that the battery pack wasn't [electrically] isolated-and it was literally a shock! Hobbyists always isolate the battery pack for safety [to prevent high-voltage shocks when touching the metal vehicle frame]. Somebody at Corbin said to me, "Well, Clare, you're being really stupid about this, this has a fiberglass body, not metal.' But I discovered later it has a virtual metal body in the form of the brake lines. They go all over the car, they're connected to the frame..."
"At the time, Corbin had only mechanical engineers, no electrical engineers. But you need both to build an electric car." As Corbin faced tough times and Bell continued to raise safety issues, management decided it no longer required her services (or, apparently, those of fellow engineer Jim Robbins, who quit in protest).
Now, after eleven years in the electric auto field, the EVet is out on her own, on retainer with Silicon Valley Sparrow-owners to keep their birds running smoothly. Today EleDuck is getting a wiring upgrade so that the sound from the stereo will no longer blink in and out in time with the turn signals. Bell relishes these opportunities to improve the Sparrows and do repairs she wouldn't have had time for as an employee.
Though the Sparrows are keeping her busy for now, and their owners clearly appreciate the old-fashioned house-call service, this survivor is already thinking about her next incarnation. If Ford follows through on its plan to abandon Th!nk City production (despite demonstrated demand) in favor of suing the California Air Resources Board, she'd love to teach Ford a little lesson about survival.
"There's nothing on that car that you can't buy from a vendor, except the body. The electrical components are from Siemens or Actia of France, the batteries are from SAFT… There are a few custom-made hoses, but nothing fancy. With a little funding, there's nothing to stop us from putting the Th!nk brains in a Geo Metro body and making a great little car."
She seems the perfect person to pull this off, combining years of hobbyist experience with time at two major manufacturers. "You can't just take some guy out of school and say, 'Okay, build me an electric car.' To build a good electric car, you need to have lived with a bad one. The auto industry has been slow to take advantage of the years of experience of enthusiasts. But it's not over yet, not by a long shot."
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