Enough with the 'Not Invented Here'
By Bill Moore
The scuttlebutt has it that the Big Three auto chiefs met with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi last week in Washington, D.C. to shake her down for $25 billion to bail them out -- though they refuse to call it that, preferring instead to call them "loan guarantees."
Their logic is painfully pedestrian. The Democratic Party needs Michigan for Barack Obama to win the White House and without these "loans," you can kiss the state's economy goodnight, and with it the party's chances to winning in November. And since Ohio's economy is also heavily dependent on the auto industry, as Michigan goes, so will Ohio. Those two states alone could spell the difference between four years in the White House or four more years of regrets.
Besides, Congress is bailing out everyone else, why not the American auto industry?
Of course, the same argument can be made for a dozen other troubled industries, starting with the beleaguered airline business. The challenge facing Ms. Pelosi and her fellow Democratic legislators is where do you draw the line? Her conservative Republican counterparts may argue against further bailouts on fiscal grounds, but they too haven't shown much restraint in capping spending either. And for all the criticism of "socialized" welfare and healthcare on their part, when it comes to "corporate socialism," all too many of them are willing to vote how corporate lobbyists want them to vote.
Since it is going to be you and me as American taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill for these "loans" -- which given the politics of the moment are likely to happen regardless of whether we think they are needed or not -- I think we need to make sure that Ms. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed make damned well sure the money gets spent as productively as possible.
In So Detroit, Where's Your Business Plan? I called for the Big Three to first demonstrate they each have a plan for using the money effectively and not just blowing as they have done countless times before. Case in point, what happen to those 80 mpg Partnership for a New Generation Vehicles Detroit was supposed to build during the Clinton Administration? They're sitting in the carmaker corporate museums collecting dust. How many millions of taxpayer dollars got flushed down that rat hole?
It's the same story with hydrogen fuel cells. Hundreds of millions have been pumped into technology that is always 15-20 years away. And what do we have to show for it? A few hundred very expensive prototypes.
Now, don't get me wrong, research of this kind is expensive and carmakers have spent as much as government on these ventures, but with pathetically little to show for it. And don't get me started on 'clean coal.'
Meanwhile, with little or no public funding, dozens of small companies with names you've never heard of like AC Propulsion, Azure Dynamics, Odyne, Valence, E-Drive, UQM, Balqon, Electrovaya, Raser Technologies, AFS Trinity, Aerovironment, Enova, Cafe Electric, Manzanita Micro, Phoenix Motors, CommuterCars, Aptera have been quietly forging ahead developing the electronics, the motors, the batteries, the chargers, as well as truly innovative, breakthrough vehicle design concepts that aren't just reiterations of the same old formula.
While the Big Three -- and their oil company allies -- suckled the government's teets for decades, these little -- often garage-sized, occasionally father-and-son -- enterprises have struggled to stay afloat, living hand-to-mouth as they perfect their technology in the hope that someday one of the Big Three will come calling.
But they never do, and a large part of the reason is a fatal character flaw that runs through Detroit like a cracked windshield. It's called the "Not Invented Here" syndrome, which basically says, if we didn't think of it -- and patent it -- it isn't worth considering. That may seem harsh, but over the last decade I've heard this story repeated time and again, some for good reason -- the idea was impractical or un-manufacturable -- but often for no logical reason whatsoever other than "we didn't invent it."
And it's those good ideas, breakthrough designs, and innovative concepts from these little backwater companies that Detroit, in its hubris, seems to continually ignore.
Well, the time has come to put an end to this BS. If Congress is going to hand out tens of billions of your dollars and mine, then I think it's high time, some of those funds find their way directly into the hands of the people who have, despite the lack of fat government grants and loans and earmarks, have brought the electric car to the point where the big players are starting to take it seriously.
One prime example is AC Propulsion, a small firm in San Dimas, California whose origins go back to the original prototype car that became the GM EV1, now famous for its tragic starring role in 'Who Killed the Electric Car?' It was Alan Cocconi and his team that developed the advanced, highly efficient and incredibly powerful alternating current drive system that allowed the car to travel 60-80 miles on the energy equivalent of one-tenth of a gallon of gasoline. Since that program ended nearly twenty years ago, the company has quietly worked on research projects for the likes of Volkswagen and Venturi. It is their drive system that is the basis of the Tesla Roadster. It is their engineering and battery control system that propels actor Tom Hank's converted Toyota Scion Xb "eBox" electric car, videos of which are on YouTube.
It is the likes of Alan Cocconi, Tom Gage, Alec Brooks, Wally Rippel, the late Paul MacCready, Rick Woodbury, Greg Hanssen, Otmar Ebenhoech, Jim Worden, and many, many others who have quietly soldiered on, keeping the dream of electric drive alive, while Detroit built fleets of millions of gas guzzlers and convinced America it needed them, apparently never believing a day of reckoning would come during their watch.
Now it has and they have the gall to ask you and me to bail them out for their short-sighted, greedy, vanity-driven decision making. Well, if Congress is of the mind to spend our money -- and our children's money -- on yet another chunk of corporate welfare, then I say, give some it to the people who have made a difference, who have put their dreams, their personal savings and their lives on the line. They deserve more than this feeble pat on the back. How about some of that money?
Think what they could do if only given a fraction of the funds Detroit is asking for? You want to end America's addiction to oil? Then why in the world give more money to the "pushers" who hooked us on the stuff in the first place? It's the CommuterCars, the Apteras, NMGs, the Phoenix Motors of the EV world that have real, breakthrough products that will not only end the nation's dependence on oil, but can also solve the problem of traffic congestion, while making driving fun again.
Let me take you back to October, 1997 and a piece of electric car history. On that date, Jim Worden, the CEO of tiny Solectria Corporation drove his firm's Sunrise electric car from Boston to Manhattan at speeds up to 65 mph. The five-passenger car was powered by NiMH batteries, state-of-the-art at the time. He covered 217 miles and used just 85% of the charge in the batteries; and this car was equipped with all the amenities Americans expect to have on their cars today. Yes, early models of the car would have cost $100,000, but Worden expected with volume production to see that price drop to $25,000, according the New York Times.
To quote then-City Parks Commissioner, Henry J. Stern, what Worden and the team at Solectria accomplished that day was comparable to "Charles Lindbergh's pioneering trans-Atlantic flight."
Yet, Solectria's dreams, unlike their remarkable car, never got out of Boston -- Americans were too busy buying Explorers and Tahoes and Durangos and Congress was too busy impeaching Bill Clinton. Worden eventually merged the company with Azure Dynamics, a Canadian firm, and left to build solar panel inverters. The last of the Sunrises is currently serving as the model for a future electric kit car ... again, if the funding can be found.
Worden's story has been repeated too many times before. Viable, proven -- and yes, not necessarily perfect -- technology sits idle while Congress succumbs to the pleadings and threats of the modern day reincarnation of the notorious Purple Gang.
"You want to win the election, Speaker Pelosi, see to it that we get our money."
That kind of of shakedown, in my book, is not only undemocratic, it's highly illegal, but it's also the way the system has worked from time immemorial.
So, if Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reed decide it's in the interest of the Democratic Party -- and you can bet Senator McCain and the Republicans have been given the same pitch -- to get those loan guarantees passed, then some of that money also needs to go where it will do some real good and just not save the asses of the guys who put their employees, their customers and the nation in this bind in the first place.
Want an electric car with 250 miles range today and not ten years from now? How about also funding the Tom Gages, the Jim Wordens and the Rick Woodbury's of our EV World? After all, Detroit doesn't have a lock on innovation and good ideas can be invented in San Dimas, Spokane and San Diego.
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