The godfather of car batteries talks about the birth of the electric car. By John E. Waters, as told to Alissa Walker.
John E. Waters knows a thing or two about batteries. He's worked in the business for the past 25 years. Now, as CEO and president of Bright Automotive, he'd like to put all that work to good use-perfecting a 100-mpg hybrid. But first, we asked him to take a trip down memory lane, to a time when he was developing and producing the battery pack for GM's ill-fated electric baby, the EV1."[In the early days of the electric car], there was this sense of wanting to save the planet, of wanting to make a product that did not fail because it was so revolutionary-a paradigm shift for the consumer. And a lot of that had to do with perfecting the range of the vehicle as compared to the gasoline internal-combustion engine."Today, the concerns are almost identical to the comments and concerns I heard back in 1992 about the state of the art of the battery. They were specifically referring to the lead-acid-battery technology of the time. How are we going to get 100 miles of the charge out of the acid-battery pack? How is it going to be affordable? How is the warranty going to work? How do you replace them? All the same issues that you hear today."When we tackled the problem, within two years, we developed a battery-pack product that met the requirements. It was my job to integrate that product. It was huge-maybe five feet long and four feet wide. The battery was so large and heavy-half the weight of the vehicle-that it affected everything about the car: the dynamics of the drive, the braking and handling, the shipping, the interiors, the structure-everything."The battery had full impact on every component on the vehicle. And so when you saw how that component impacted the entire vehicle, you begin to analyze back to first principles: car design, and what you are really trying to do. Our goal is to move human beings from point A to point B, in some kind of device. And so the heavier the device is, the more un-aerodynamic that device is, the more energy it's going to take to move that device. It gave me great appreciation for efficiency and taking mass out of the vehicle to improve aerodynamics and the rolling resistance of the tires. The third generation [of that early battery] will be lithium-ion-based technology, which is kind of the last frontier of energy and batteries."Everyone's got an opinion on it. I can just tell you as the battery guy for the EV1, I never had a customer complaint about range. Also, customers are so preconditioned-they know how far they are going to drive their vehicle on a daily basis. Let's face it-something like 75 to 80 percent of Americans drive fewer than 90 miles a day. This has been seen as a challenge when it really isn't."Top image:Bright Automotive is launching a "secret product" late this spring. This image is a rendering of the cleaner automotive future the company envisions.