Sunday, February 05, 2006
It can't be your father's hybrid. I killed the program—UPDATED
If we put a hybrid engine in your Hummer do you think people would stop making obscene gestures?—Do you recall all those wonderful urban legends about how the tire industry suppressed tires that would run 100 miles without replacement, how oil companies killed the development of engine oils that won’t wear out or how the government rejected a car with very clean, efficient technology? Well, one of them is true.
A hybrid car technology was developed by an inventor named Victor Wouk in the 1970s and a bureaucrat with the Environmental Protection Agency killed it. I’m not making this up.
According to hybridcars.com, Victor Wouk was an engineer who once worked on the Manhattan Project. Along with a partner, Charles Rosen, he came up with the design in the late 1960s for a car driven by a combination of gas and electric motors. He was convinced that electric cars, the technology that seemed to be something of a fad at the time, would never be economical, but a hybrid would work. He tried to sell the idea to the auto industry, but no one would give him the time of day. Meanwhile, Congress had just passed the Clean Air Act, which required automakers to reduce emissions by 90%. Wouk was tipped off about a virtually unknown program, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Car Incentive Program (FCCIP), which was set up to meet that goal. The inventor of a car that hit the mark set by the Clean Air Act would get a $300,000 development contract. Wouk and Rosen formed a company, Petro-Electric Motors, Ltd, and after a year’s work, submitted their application and won the contract along with several other companies. They didn’t know it at the time, but they had just run into a man named Eric Stork, head of EPA’s Mobile Source Air Pollution Control Program, who didn’t believe anyone could produce such a car, and thought the FCCIP was a pain in the ass. He had too many more important things to do.
Now they had to build a test car. The other companies winning the competition soon dropped out, having failed to meet the requirements, leaving Petro-Electric, the only one proposing a hybrid. Rosen and Wouk visited car dealers, looking for the right frame to put their technology in and settled on a 1972 Buick Skylark. They modified the Skylark and notified Stork they were ready for the FCCIP test. Stork refused and threatened to kill the whole program. He was too busy being a “regulator,” he said.
Now, Victor Wouk had a brother named Herman, who by now was a fairly famous writer. Victor, with Herman’s assistance, petitioned the National Science Foundation for help. The foundation called a meeting with Rosen, the Wouks and Stork. Victor Wouk gave details of what they had accomplished and the foundation begged Stork to test it. He reluctantly agreed, probably with his fingers crossed behind his back, and he promised to promote the technology if the car passed the test. An EPA engineer, however, tipped off Wouk that Stork was going to reject the car no matter what it did. The car passed. A month later, Stork sent Wouk a letter listing 75 reasons why he would not approve the next phase of support. Wouk’s Skylark did cut emissions and did use less fuel but he just didn’t like the idea. And he was very busy. Letters flew for years, but Stork would not relent.
Stork, now retired explained: “On the dynamometer, it was rigged to run only on the batteries. That’s why the emissions were so good. It’s just not a very practical technology for automotive. That’s why it’s going nowhere. It certainly wasn’t [going anywhere] then. Even today, it’s marginal.” [Note: there are more than 400,000 hybrid cars on American roads at the moment, most of them use exactly that technology, and one sitting in my driveway.] Petro-Electric soon ran out of money, and Wouk, pissed and depressed gave up. Gas was cheap in those days, the auto industry was doing fine and no one gave a damn.
UPDATE—Hybrid cars won three of the eight top positions in IntelliChoice.com's best overall value of the year award for new cars. The Best Car Value for cars under $23,000 went to the hybrid Toyota Prius, while both SUV categories -- under $28,000 and over $28,000 -- went to the Ford Escape Hybrid two-wheel drive and Toyota Highlander Hybrid two-wheel drive, respectively. Ford uses Toyota's technology.
Wouk published 100 technical papers on hybrid technology and remained an advocate. He eventually bought a white Prius and there is no record of him driving by Stork’s house giving him the finger.
Wouk, who never smoked in his life, died of lymphoma and lung cancer in May of last year. It is possible air pollution contributed to his death.
For an interview with Victor Wouk, click here.