The first one embraced by Burns and the students was to build a car that got at least 80 miles per gallon. "That was three times the corporate average fuel economy at the time," the professor says. "This was the goal that drove battery research and fuel-efficient vehicle design and engine research for most of the '90s."
Burns says he never gave serious consideration to building a car that would run solely on battery power, but, in fact, there were precedents for such a vehicle. All-electric cars were invented in the late 1830s; by the end of the century, they'd become the best-selling vehicles in America. The cars were easier to drive than early gasoline-powered cars, which had to be started with hand cranks and required frequent gear changes, and, unlike steam-powered vehicles, they were ready to go instantly on cold mornings. Electric cars could also be fast: In 1899, a Belgian-built model set a world land speed record of 68 miles per hour. And because they didn't burn fuel, electric cars were clean, quiet, smooth-riding, and easy to maintain. They were limited, however, by how far they could travel and how quickly and easily they could be refueled.
"Cars had replaced bicycles as the means for affluent urbanites who could afford them to get out to enjoy the countryside," Alan P. Loeb, of the Argonne National Laboratory, wrote in a proceeding from the 1995 Business History Conference.
"Had motorists intended to drive only in urban areas, electrics might have served just as well, if not better. But urban motorists could not take a country drive in an electric [car] without the risk of becoming stranded."
With an internal combustion engine, a driver could carry enough fuel to guard against that risk. By 1904, an internal combustion-powered Oldsmobile had become the best-selling car in the United States, and in the years that followed, industrial and technological innovations further widened the gap between gas-powered automobiles and their rivals. Ford introduced the gas-powered Model T in 1908 and started mass-producing it in 1913, causing prices to plunge and sales to skyrocket. By then, a brilliant and charismatic engineer named Charles "Boss" Kettering had invented a self-starter and done away with the daunting hand-crank. And in 1923, General Motors (which employed Kettering as its vice president for research) began selling the world's first leaded gasoline -- an innovation that opened the door to the development of far more powerful engines. In 1924, the 24-year-old National Auto Show failed to exhibit a single electric or steam-powered car.
It took concerns about air pollution and shrinking petroleum supplies to bring talk about electric-powered vehicles back into automotive engineering offices. The process, which began in the 1960s and picked up steam in the '90s, as government actions put additional pressures on automakers, seemed to culminate in 1996, when General Motors started manufacturing its all-electric EV1. Designed from the ground up, this teardrop-shaped coupe was powered by a liquid-cooled alternating-current motor and lead-acid batteries. GM boasted that the EV1 had a top speed of 80 miles per hour and a range of 70 to 90 miles, accelerating from zero to 60 in less than 8 seconds.
The vehicle "had a significant following," Burns acknowledges. "It represented 20 or 30 years of utopian dreams of what efficient transportation should be: Essentially, nonpolluting at the source. Quiet. All-electric." But the car's fatal flaw was its battery, which could take up to eight hours to recharge and required a special charging paddle. "The EV1 batteries didn't last long enough, so there were warranty issues," Burns says. (Indeed, only about 800 people ever leased EV1s, which the carmaker never sold, and after spending more than a billion dollars, GM announced in 2000 that the line would be discontinued.)
Burns says even back in 1997 it was clear that the problems troubling the EV1 were formidable. "Range is the big issue," Burns says. "People may only drive 50 miles a day, but they want the ability to drive 300.... It's that feeling that they can do what they want. It's that freedom."
If GM wasn't solving those problems, "we probably couldn't," the professor reasoned. Hybrid technology, on the other hand, seemed much more promising, he says, an arena where a team of upstarts might be able to come up with some breakthroughs.
The basic idea of using both a gasoline-powered engine and a battery-powered motor to propel an automobile was not a novel one: An assortment of French, Austrian, German, Canadian, and American manufacturers had offered hybrid creations a century ago. Back then, engines weren't very powerful, and cars that employed them exclusively took as long as 30 seconds to reach the speed of 25 miles per hour.
Adding an electric motor provided a way to boost acceleration. But, the advent of leaded gasoline allowed carmakers to begin making engines that were so muscular they didn't need the added power. Of course, these bigger engines used more fuel and pumped more pollutants into the atmosphere. But at the time, skies over America were still clear, fossil fuel seemed unlimited, and cars had just solved the major pollution issue of the day -- ubiquitous horse dung.
When the limits of our petroleum supply did become apparent, automotive engineers started to reconsider the question of engine size: As it happens, even the smallest gasoline automobile engine -- one that provides as little as 15 horsepower -- is big enough to propel the average car along a freeway at a speed of 60 miles per hour. And, of course, smaller engines use less fuel. What small engines can't do is accelerate quickly, tow, and climb hills without slowing down. For that, you need gas-guzzling horsepower -- or assistance from an electric motor.
In October of 1997 Toyota announced that the hybrid Prius would soon become available in Japan. The Prius "certainly had fuel-economy targets to shoot for -- a claim of around 58 miles per gallon," Burns says.
But, to Burns's way of thinking, the Japanese car had a few significant limitations. The Prius had so little battery power it could only travel at 35 miles an hour for three or four minutes before switching over to its gasoline engine. Freeway speeds on electric power alone would be impossible. And, Burns believed, the Prius "was a somewhat homely, underperforming car, not really in tune with the desires of a majority of American drivers." Burns believed he could do better and proposed to build a light, hybrid "test bed," a vehicle "we could use to test out different technologies." This would be a fully functional car, "but one designed in such a way that you could swap out many of the drive-train components and test different ones. You could put a fuel cell in, if you needed to. And there would be enough room to store lots of fuel or hydrogen or different engine/motor combinations." Moreover, Burns was convinced he and his team could come up with a design that was both "flexible enough to permit these future alterations, yet at the same time exquisitely styled, attractive, lightweight...representative of what a car should be if it were available for sale."