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The Great Race to Build the Car of the Future

By Bill Moore

Levi Tillemann set off in pursuit of the race to create the car of the future when automakers to whom he tried to sell his revolutionary internal combustion engine told him what they really wanted was a better battery.

Levi Tillemann tried hard to find an automaker interested in his father's revolutionary internal combustion engine without success. Instead, what one of them told him after finally agreeing to a face-to-face meeting was what the auto industry needed wasn't a better gasoline engine. What it needed was a better battery.

It was at that moment that Tillemann realized the future is electric. The Great Race - The Global Quest for the Car of the Future is his account of three major countries: the United States, California in particular; Japan and China and their efforts to dominate the market for electric cars.

To be honest, it is just a bit strange reading a book about a period of time and industry players you know fairly intimately. As the founder and publisher of EV World, I lived much of the story found in The Great Race, but Tillemann somehow burrowed much deeper into the backstories than I ever did, especially the politics of the three key nations and their auto industries that would bring us where we are today.

Curiously, California and its Air Resources Board play a pivotal role in the race: it's aggressive zero emission mandate compelling both the US and Japan to undertake engineering challenges that without the fear of losing access to the largest car market in the country would never have undertaken the challenge to build cleaner, greener vehicles.

And then there is TEPCO, Tokyo Electric Power Company, and Fukushima and the surprising role the man in the center of the clean up played in the modern rebirth of the electric car: Takafumi Anegawa. Here's where the story takes a personal turn for me, because it was at the 2007 Tokyo Auto Show, as a guest journalist of Toyota, that I saw for the first time, the fruit of his long years of labor: two electric cars.

One of them, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, was owned by TEPCO and boldly proclaimed on its side "Switch." The other was the Subura R1e. These two all-electric mini-cars were, at the time, the only production electric cars in the world. I was fortunate in that I got to drive both that year on a test track outside the Makuhari Messe.

In Japan, their 'Big Three' - Nissan, Toyota, Honda - had largely abandoned battery electric cars after California was forced to shelve its ZEV mandate. Only by convincing his employer, TEPCO, along with the various Japanese ministries, as well as Mitsubishi and Subaru, both relatively small players in Japan, that the future was not only electric, but more importantly, nuclear-powered, were either of those two cars on display at the car show. Anegawa was a nuclear power engineer who passionately believed that Japan had to find other sources of energy besides importing oil and gas to power its motor vehicle fleet. After all, its world-leading bullet trains were electric; why not its cars?

In an uncanny twist of fate, Anegawa also would be the person TEPCO would tap in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami to try and manage the on-going clean up at its destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility where three reactors melted down and continue to pollute the Pacific with radioactive waste; a clean-up that could take until mid-century.

Then there's the architect of China's nearly failed 'great leap forward' in electric car technology. Wan Gang is one of China's many 'sea turtles,' members of its elite who have climbed their way up the social and political ladder working and studying abroad, bringing back home valuable knowledge, contacts, and skills. Wan would rise to ministerial level leading the charge to make China the world leader in electric car technology. It would prove a much tougher task than he, the government in Beijing, or China's nascent auto industry realized.

The Great Race is a fast-paced account of how, from Tillemann's perspective, we got to where we are today with battery prices falling and EV model's proliferating. Who will win the race hasn't yet been decided, so a sequel is definitely over the horizon: if not by Tillemann, then by his successor.

We have divided the interview with him into two 15-minute segments. Be sure to take half an hour and watch both. Better yet, order the book from your favorite brick or click seller. Here's the link to Amazon.

Video Part 1

Video Part 2

Times Article Viewed: 1279
Originally published: 21 May 2015

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