After 40 years, father of electric vehicle R&D finally sees tipping point

General Electric
Tags: green manufacturing, energy management


Doing the electric slide: GE’s Bob King recently met with the team from MAKE magazine, which shot the photo above during a visit to the EV lab at GE Global Research in upstate New York. Check out their blog post and meet some of the GE scientists they saw along the way. Photo:Becky Stern, MAKE.

For almost 40 years, the world’s population has faced an indisputable fact: our energy needs are outpacing our supply. And now, the need for new energy technologies is more urgent than ever.

When GE Global Research’s Bob King built his first electric car in 1972, he didn’t have the barest inkling of the energy problems yet to come — he just thought it was a cool idea.

As an undergraduate at Pennsylvania’s Grove City College, King wrote a paper that claimed we would be driving electric vehicles within his lifetime. “After I graduated, suddenly I had some extra time, so I went back and wondered if what I wrote back in [college] made sense,” he told GE Reports.

Working with a Volkswagen chassis, a DC motor, and lead acid batteries, King jerry-rigged an electric car that could rumble down the road for up to 50 miles on a single charge. Since the commute to his new job at GE was just 20 miles, he could make it there and back with a few miles to spare.

But as the energy crisis of the 1970s took root, King realized that he was almost unique on the road: “I was not waiting in line for gas like so many of my colleagues were.”

Thus began his thirty-year quest to build a better electric vehicle. In late 1979, GE won a contract with the Department of Energy to build more efficient cars, and King was appointed project engineer for a new hybrid test vehicle. He sweated over batteries that weighed 700 pounds, and struggled to find ways to keep costs down and make the cars affordable for the average consumer. And since the energy crisis was in full swing, he figured that demand would make his dream of an electric-car world an inevitability.

Then, in the early 1980s, everything changed.

“I thought that in five years, maybe [EVs] would be commercially viable,” King says. “But once the price of gas settled at a dollar a gallon, there was no shortage of gasoline. The energy crisis was over, and everyone went back to consuming gas.”

Nevertheless, concerns about air pollution and global warming eventually brought EVs back into the public eye. In partnership with Ford, King and his GE team switched gears, focusing on reducing emissions by larger vehicles — first vans, then heavy industrial mining trucks and buses.

“There was no way that the emission problem was going to go away overnight,” he says. “So I changed the thrust of the program to what can we do to minimize emissions.”

Under King’s leadership, GE proved it was technically feasible to greatly reduce emissions on a public transit bus, which led to New York’s first hybrid buses in 1996. It paved the way for today’s hybrid buses and established the emissions requirements for New York City’s hybrid transit buses.

Now at last, the EV focus as returned to consumer vehicles. After thirty-plus years, King still recalls when he thought such cars were merely five years away. He’s a little older and a little wiser, but he’s still convinced that electric cars are the future.

“We had the hybrids in the late ‘70s and pure electrics, but the battery technology still wasn’t there,” he says. “Now we’re seeing the battery technology has improved, and we’re looking at a 100-mile range on a single charge. We’re not all going to be driving electric vehicles in five years, but a great deal of people will. Especially with a second car, which many people use to drive less than forty miles a day.

“With India and China increasing the demand for oil, I think we’re at a turning point. And the good news is, the tech is maturing.”

EV Fahrvergnügen! Bob showed off his personal electric VW Rabbit to the team from MAKE magazine during their visit. Photo:Becky Stern, MAKE.

* View our gallery of GE’s past EV test projects
* See video interview with Bob in our EV lab from 2008
* Read an The Inspired Economist’s interview with Bob King
* Read more EV stories on GE Reports