It’s the kind of story Hollywood normally loves: An independent genius’ invention ends up being suppressed by powerful interests. In Tucker: A Man and His Dream, political agents of the Big 3 automakers maneuver to put Preston Tucker out of business; intermittent windshield wiper inventor Robert Kearns is ripped off by the Ford Motor Company in Flash of Genius; The documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? accused General Motors of suppressing the development of electric vehicles by crushing them.
The truth is that GM and other Detroit automakers have been doing research on EVs for decades and that perhaps a better question would be “Who Killed (or at least delayed) The Hybrid Electric Car?” In the early 1970s, 25 years before Toyota started selling the Prius hybrid car in Japan, Dr. Victor Wouk, an independent American inventor, with encouragement from GM, developed a practical hybrid car that cut down on pollution and saved gasoline, but a conspiracy killed it.
Today’s Hollywood would never make that movie. Too many elements of Wouk’s story run counter to the preferred Hollywood narrative of evil businessmen or faceless corporations despoiling the environment. In this case, car companies aren’t the villains. To the contrary, corporations encouraged and helped Wouk in his research. The villain in this story was a government bureaucrat, working, ironically, at the Environmental Protection Agency, as part of a program designed to improve air quality.
With today’s regulatory leviathan in Washington, and all the emissions, safety and other standards automakers must meet it’s hard to imagine that before 1970, car engines were practically unregulated in the United States. Then, the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970 mandated a 95% reduction in auto emissions. The Federal Clean Car Incentive Program was started as part of the CAA, providing $25 million a year for the government to purchase low-emission cars. Bids were submitted and approved. Only Wouk’s bid made it far enough to provide a test vehicle, and it was the only gasoline-electric hybrid submitted.
Wouk was no backyard tinkerer or crackpot. He earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and worked on the Manhattan Project. A successful entrepreneur, by 1963 he’d already sold two thriving electronics companies that he’d started. Then he started working on electric vehicles and by the time he decided to enter the FCCIP, he’d had a decade of EV experience.
In the early 1960s, the Exide battery company wanted to convert a small fleet of Renault Dauphines to electricity to use as concept demonstrators and turned to Wouk, who designed the first transistorized EV speed control ever used. Electric cars and their low emissions intrigued Wouk, but he recognized the batteries’ limitations on performance and range.
By the mid 1960s, Gulton Industries, which had acquired Wouk’s second company, was looking for markets for their new nickel-cadmium batteries that were developed for the the U.S. Air Force. Wouk suggested using NiCads in electric cars. Gulton approached GM, Chrysler and Ford but the Big 3 declined to participate because they already had electric vehicle programs of their own. American Motors couldn’t afford such a program, and they provided a 1967 Rambler station wagon for a test mule.
What looked like a humble Rambler wagon was really a state of the art EV, with features like regenerative braking. Wouk, though, discovered that while the NiCads were an improvement, the same problems remained since the early days of electric cars: battery energy density too low for enough power and a practical range. Wouk saw a hybrid drivetrain as overcoming range and power issues.
Charlie Rosen, a chemist, thermodynamicist and friend of Wouk’s, joined him in an effort to submit a bid to the FCCIP. They incorporated Petro-Electric Motors and put together their proposal. They’d build the first prototype at their own expense and be paid $1 for it upon delivery to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The bid stipulated that if the prototype met all tests, Petro-Electric would be paid $37,000 and the EPA would also buy a test fleet of 10 cars to test for a year. If the fleet testing proved to be successful, the EPA would then purchase 350 cars and that way Wouk and Rosen would turn a profit on the project.
Wouk was a businessman and wanted to make money but as an engineer, electric cars intrigued him. Just as much, he was driven by concerns about air pollution. At a panel on air quality in New York that included an executive in charge of GM’s Tech Center in Warren, MI, and Eric Stork, an EPA official, Wouk presented his case for hybrid technology. Some of the attendees — including Stork — were skeptical about hybrids. General Motors though, had worked on EVs and fuel cell vehicles in the 1960s with the Electrovair and Electrovan and was aware of the limitations of battery power alone. The big automaker’s representative expressed interest in Wouk’s work.
Wouk had settled on using a 1972 Buick Skylark because the midsized car had a large engine compartment, large enough for the hybrid drivetrain and batteries. His local dealer, though, informed him that the Skylark production line had been shut down for model changeover. Wouk contacted the GM exec who had expressed interest in his project, some strings were pulled and a Skylark was found for Petro-Electric to buy. So much for Detroit’s resistance to EV research back then.
Development wasn’t easy and there were setbacks but the pair completed a test vehicle based on Wouk’s design and shipped it to the EPA’s then new lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for testing. As with any prototypes, there were issues but professors from the college of engineering at the nearby University of Michigan volunteered their services and the school’s automotive lab, and the problems were fixed. To this date those professors remain impressed with Wouk and Rosen’s achievement. Unfortunately, Eric Stork by then was the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Mobile Source Air Pollution Control. More simply put he was the EPA’s chief automotive regulator. Stork, remember, didn’t like hybrids and reportedly said, “Under no circumstances is the hybrid to be accepted.” He also threatened to end the entire program.
It took Wouk’s petition to the National Science Foundation and a special committee of scientists to resolve the matter. Stork eventually relented and the hybrid was tested. Wouk claimed it passed all the tests. In an interview thirty years later Stork still dismissed Wouk’s technology but he never disputed Wouk’s claims.
“On the dynamometer, it was rigged to run only on the batteries,” Stork said. “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.”
Stork doesn’t like hybrids now and he didn’t like hybrids then. In light of the many hybrids and new EVs now on the market or planned, Stork’s comments sound ill informed, because one of the main environmental benefits of hybrids is that some of the time they only run on batteries.
Wouk went to his death bed insisting that his hybrid met the requirements to go on to phase II of the project. Evidence supports that. The EPA paid Petro-Electric for the prototype according to the bid contract, so it appears that the hybrid met the specified terms of that phase of the bid. Still, in a letter to Petro-Electric the EPA cited 75 reasons for not proceeding to phase II. The documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? made GM’s crushing of the EV1 test fleet seem like a nefarious act. Victor Wouk’s prototype hybrid car no doubt has long since been crushed by the EPA.
The Caltech archives have boxes of correspondence between the EPA and Wouk over whether the hybrid met the terms of the bid. This went on for months. The archive even includes a letter from Stork admitting that the hybrid generated less pollution and produced better mileage than a conventional car, but that he was still opposed to hybrids.
Wouk eventually stopped banging his head against the bureaucratic wall. While he remained a tireless advocate of hybrid cars, without financial backing he wasn’t going to be the one making them. He continued his research and successfully secured a number of patents relating to hybrids and electric vehicles.
Despite that Stork remains skeptical about the Wouk hybrid. “It never happened,” he said a few years ago.
While Stork’s actions prevented an American inventor from developing hybrid technology decades before the Toyota Prius, Wouk has eventually received recognition for his work. The hybrid cars that Stork claimed would be “marginal” now sell hundreds of thousands of units a year, and hybrids being produced or developed by nearly every automaker, including companies like Jaguar and Ferrari. Wouk’s groundbreaking work has been rediscovered. His writings and patents are frequently cited in papers and patent applications on hybrid technology. Victor Wouk is now generally acknowledged as the “godfather of the hybrid car.”
The full story, though, was not revealed until after Wouk passed away. Engineers and hybrid enthusiasts may have known about Wouk’s aborted effort, but Eric Stork continued to regulate in relative anonymity, until his retirement. After his own retirement, Wouk told his hybrid’s story as part of a Caltech oral history project. Though excerpts of the interview were published, Stork’s name was redacted. It was only after Wouk’s passing that the full transcripts were released and the malevolent bureaucrat was identified.
Stork appears to have been the consummate bureaucrat, primarily concerned with his authority.
Referring to Detroit automakers, Stork said,
“I was their regulator. It was marvelous. It was a pissing contest at least every day, maybe two or three. Really makes the adrenaline flow and the rheumatism go away. You may be up to your ass in alligators. You’re never going to drain the swamp, but once in a while, you nick an alligator, you think you’re doing something. It was wonderful.”
It wasn’t about clean air. It was about Stork exercising his ‘authoritay’ over people. He was proud to call himself a “professional bureaucrat” with stints at the Federal Aviation Administration and the FDA before moving to the EPA. He doesn’t appear to have had any particular interest in cleaning the environment. From his words, he seemed to be most interested in exercising his bureaucratic power. His comments about dealing with the automaker fairly drip with resentment and give us a good idea about how he wielded that power.
Auto company executives were typically the sons and grandsons of auto executives. Their ethos was big, powerful cars, with fancy fins and chrome and all that stuff. This industry had been almost totally unregulated. Suddenly they have to face a new law and short, commanding bureaucrats like me with an unfashionable haircut…
In this world, if you want to move a an or an organization, you have to reach for another part of the anatomy.. the Clean Air Act has given the EPA the best grip on the short hairs of any industry
that any administrative agency has ever had.
Don’t you want petty bureaucrats to have major industries “by the short hairs”? That certainly sounds like judicious application of authority, don’t you agree? But seriously, note how out of touch he was with the industry he was regulating, talking of “fancy fins” in the early 1970s, a decade after tailfins had gone out of style in Detroit.
If you were looking for someone to play the role of a petty, vindictive and power mad bureaucrat, Eric Stork looks like he was sent from central casting. Detroit didn’t kill the hybrid car and put America 25 years behind Japan in the development of environmentally friendly cars. Eric Stork, a government official, entrusted with making the air cleaner, did.
You can read more about Victor Wouk, his life, and his hybrid car in his transcribed oral history at that Caltech library’s site (pdf).
Note: A previous version of this post was published here on PJMedia.