Paul McCready
Paul McCready has a passion for doing the impossible, from human-powered flight to efficient electric cars. His battery electric Santana would evolve into GM's EV1, still one of the world's most efficient vehicles.

Mister Impossible

From the Archives: 1998 interview with Dr. Paul McCready

By Bill Moore

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 and 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."

"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.

Times Article Viewed: 20126
Published: 31-May-2003


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