November 24 and December 1, 8, 16, 2021
There is an origin story to the steadily increasing market share of electric vehicles on the road today. And that story begins at Caltech as much as anywhere else. As part of a small group of engineers who loved working at the nexus of efficiency, materials science, pure engineering, and the constant pursuit of fast fun, Alec Brooks worked as a key player at every major stage in the development of modern electric vehicles.
The son of retired Caltech professor Norman Brooks, Alec Brooks grew up with a first-hand view of Caltech's spirit of achieving the impossible. As a graduate student, he loved to build as much as he enjoyed mastering the fundamentals of aerodynamics and fluid dynamics. Brooks's involvement with Aerovironment helped to ensure that the solar-powered Sunraycer would cruise to victory by a wide margin in Australia's solar race, and he went on to make GM's subsequent venture in the Impact concept and EV1 an engineering and consumer success before GM ended the program.
With Brooks on board, the startup AC Propulsion ensured that the American EV car adventure did not end with GM. After the company's initial foray into electric retrofits of standard vehicles, it created the tZero roadster, a street legal EV that delighted crowds by beating the fastest Ferraris in drag races. Between this engineering spectacle and the advent of lithium-ion batteries - which the offered range and efficiency required to make EVs viable on a large scale - AC Propulsion provided both proof of concept and inspiration for the start of Tesla.
From Tesla to Google, Brooks witnessed the pivotal role of the tech industry to the development of EVs, and he reflects on how the traditional auto manufacturers are only playing catch up now. With market trends demonstrating steady growth of EVs, Brooks is now working at the next frontier - developing an infrastructure that will not only accommodate increased charging capacity, but will embrace EVs as an asset to the grid's robustness and resilience.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Wednesday, November 24th, 2021. I'm delighted to be here with Dr. Alec Brooks. Alec, thank you for joining me today.
ALEC BROOKS: I'm glad to be here.
ZIERLER: Alec, to start, would you please tell me your current or most recent title and institutional affiliation?
BROOKS: Most recently, I was affiliated with a company called eMotorWerks, which was developing electric vehicle charging stations, which in itself is nothing very special. But what they were doing that interested me was making network-connected charging stations, and then looking at the prospect of having more centralized control over some charging, with the users' acceptance, that would help with managing the operation of the power grid. This has been an interest of mine for many years because I think there's an untapped opportunity to charge cars in a way that helps the power grid and also prevents the curtailment of renewable generation, which happens almost every day in California because sometimes there's so much renewables that they just have to shut them off. To me, that's a real shame. If you had electric vehicles all at the ready to draw power on command, you wouldn't have to shut off so much renewable generation.
ZIERLER: And when you shut it off, does it go into the ether? What happens to it?
BROOKS: It's just turned off. It's just—I mean, mostly this is like solar and wind, and they just have to shut down at times.
ZIERLER: Oh, so, it stops accepting energy?
BROOKS: It stops generating renewables. They have a report on the Cal ISO website—that's the grid operator—that shows every day how much renewable generation has been curtailed. Electric vehicles are driven, like most vehicles, maybe an hour or two a day, and if they could be connected to the grid for much of the remaining time, you have a huge resource that can draw power on demand instead of curtailing renewable generation power on demand.
ZIERLER: Right. Now, are you still advising eMotorWerks at all?
BROOKS: No, they ended up getting sold to Enel, which is a big Italian-based energy company. So, when the company got sold, my participation ended there. I started on EV grid integration back at AC Propulsion when we were developing the tzero electric sports car. I was brought into AC Propulsion to manage the development of their tzero sports car. They had a prototype, and it worked pretty well, and then they were trying to make a production version of it. But it had virtually no investor capital. It was just a real small, small operation. But Alan Cocconi, who was the founder of the company had developed the vehicle power electronics to use an AC motor – so the vehicle needed to have a bidirectional inverter from the battery pack to the AC drive motor. So, he had developed this power electronics to do that function, and because of how he architected the system, that same power electronics could also provide the charging function by connecting to the AC grid at 60 cycles a second. So, he had basically a very high-powered charger that used the same electronics as what drove the motor when you were driving. It was very, very clever, and it was actually licensed to Tesla early on. Back then, we were in the midst of this huge power crisis in the west and maybe Texas, you know, Enron, and with all this speculation and market manipulation the prices of electricity were going sky-high. So, one of the things I got to be interested in was, what could we do?
Well, the other part of it, this charger that was based on the drive inverter, was bidirectional, so we could feed power from the grid or feed it back into the grid. It was just by demand, which way you wanted the power to flow. So, I wanted to start looking at what we could do with a capability like that. Could it be of value to the power grid? So, I started making calls. I made cold calls to the California grid operator, the CAISO, and found somebody that was willing to talk to me. We came up with some ideas for what kind of ancillary services, markets, that an electric vehicle with a bidirectional charger could play into. We ended up getting some funding from the California Air Resources Board to study these things. Initially, we had some support from the LADWP. So, we had some funded projects to flesh out this thing, so that got us started. Much later when I was at Google, I renewed this interest and we took it a lot further, and looked at how you could do large-scale, real time individualized charging control of millions of cars. The project team made a model with thousands of simulated EVs, each with on-demand rapid response control of charging power. We showed how that capability could be deployed and wrote an article about it for the IEEE Power and Energy magazine called "Demand Dispatch - Real Time Control of Demand to Help Balance Generation and Load" (May June 2010 issue). [Link to full article at the end.]
ZIERLER: So, since May of 2019, have you been enjoying a true retirement? Are you still consulting at all?
BROOKS: No, not consulting at all. I'm glad not to be because what I have now is time, and I've been spending a fair amount of time kind of looking back and gathering together and making sense of all of my career, and making a record of it, and doing some writing about it —some of it, I can probably provide to you—
BROOKS: —and traveling. So, no, I keep really busy. [laugh] My wife and I are looking forward to doing a lot more traveling.
ZIERLER: Once we're out of this?
BROOKS: Yeah. But she's still working. But we have an interest in traveling.
EV Charging Infrastructure
ZIERLER: Alec, one of the big items on the agenda in Washington these days, of course, is infrastructure. So, given your interest in infrastructure and power and generation and things like that, what are you interested in these days in terms of policy, in terms of opportunities for renewable energy, and the Green New Deal, things like that?
BROOKS: Well, I'm of course interested in how the EV charging infrastructure builds out because there's going to be a lot of money going into that. There's been a lot of progress. When you talk to Alan Cocconi, he has very strongly held views about how this should be done, and he thinks it's not being done correctly right now. [laugh] I think Alan still thinks that his approach of using the power electronics in the car as a basis of a very fast-charging system—because you have a 100- or 200-kilowatt inverter in the car for driving the motor, so that could also convert standard grid AC power into DC power to charge the batteries. But right now, what they do is put AC to DC power conversion electronics out in the infrastructure in these big, tall housings to do the power conversion before it gets to the car.
The other thing about infrastructure that we haven't really figured out yet, as far as I know, is how do we provide charging in apartments and condo buildings that have parking garages and things like that. Maybe that'll come very soon as part of new construction, I would hope. But, say, if everyone comes home from work, and plugs in their car in their condo or apartment building's chargers at about the same time, you don't want all those cars to be pulling their full charging power all at once because that means you have to put in a much bigger electrical connection and transformer. There is a professor at Caltech, Steve Low, who has been doing some very clever work in how to optimally charge a whole set of cars that each have a different amount of energy required, and time when charging needs to be done. His research group has a pretty big prototype system in operation in the underground parking garage over by the athletic field.
ZIERLER: To what extent is Tesla's dominance in the infrastructure of charging systems—how long-lived is that, how long is it going to be proprietary, and as the big automakers rush into electric vehicle production, what might change in the coming years?
BROOKS: That's a good question because Tesla—I was at Tesla for a while in the very early days, and while at Tesla I was also on the SAE Standards committee that was designing a standardized charging interface. So, part of my job at Tesla was to go with Martin Eberhard, who was then the president—this was way back at near the beginning of Tesla—and we went to the SAE committee meeting in Detroit and tried to convince them to drop their approach, and to adopt Tesla's connector used on the Roadster. Back then, Tesla's connector was very different from what it is now. It was just more like a standard military style connector. It was pretty crude. So the SAEcommittee told Tesla to go away. [laugh] But the interesting thing is that the US and the European Union have kind of standardized on the type of connectors that are used, which is called Combined Charging System, or CCS. With this system, you can have either low-current AC, or with a variant of that connector, have high-current DC for fast charging. There were some countries in Europe that told Tesla, in order to get their subsidies, they had to adopt that CCS charging standard, so Teslas in those countries in Europe don't have the proprietary Tesla connector. They have the standard CCS connector. That to me is the best solution. If we can get Tesla to switch over to that standard charging connector in the US, then we have almost a worldwide standard. It'll get there eventually but it's still kind of a little bit of a mess.
ZIERLER: Do you think that consumer demand is outpacing the way that the EV infrastructure charging environment is positioned now, or are they both working pretty well hand-in-hand?
BROOKS: I think they're working pretty well. The growth of electric vehicle sales is pretty stunning. I wouldn't have predicted it a year ago. I think 2021 was kind of a tipping point where virtually all automakers are now committing to switching over to EVs within a decade, which is just amazing. There is going to be a lot of investment into charging. If you live in a single-family home, it is pretty straightforward to add charging. If you live in an apartment, there's going to need to be some infrastructure added. But it's happening really fast. Then, there's work on extremely fast charging. I'm nominally still on this SAE Charging Standards Committee, although I don't participate anymore. But I get emails sometimes, and I got one a couple days ago, and they were talking about a standard for one megawatt charging capability which is just stunning.
ZIERLER: What would that look like if you have a Tesla Model S at 0%?
BROOKS: Well, let's see, a megawatt is 1,000 kilowatts, and you have a 60-kilowatt-hour battery. So, four or five minutes to charge.
ZIERLER: Like filling up a 16-gallon tank.
BROOKS: Right. So, then maybe the way a lot of this goes is you just have very fast charging. Then, there's also a system—it's more like a payment data protocol as part of CCS called Plug & Charge —where you can have your car and payment method registered for Plug & Charge. Then when you go and you find a compatible Plug & Charge-enabled charger you just plug it in, and it just starts charging because it does the digital communication with the car to see if you're authorized—have an authorized payment method, and if you do, it just starts charging. So, it makes it way easier than buying gas right now. Buying gas, you have to authorize the gas purchase with your credit card or your debit card each time you get gas, Plug & Charge is going to be so much easier than buying gas.
ZIERLER: Do you think that gas stations, which we have all over the country on so many street corners, do you think they will provide at least from a real estate perspective a source of replacement for electric vehicle charging? Is that an easy solution, in your eyes?
BROOKS: Yeah, I think so. I saw recently a major oil company purchased one of these smaller startup EV charging companies. I think you're going to see that. You're going to see Shell and just the major oil company names start buying up small charging companies to get a foothold in, and they'll be fast-charge stations. Maybe it'll start with one fast charger at a gas station but, eventually, it will just be no more gasoline, and all fast chargers. There'll be some electrical infrastructure work for sure to get power to these places.
ZIERLER: Alec, you mentioned your surprise at surging consumer demand nowadays. Given that you've been working on thinking about electric cars for so long, what surprises you about where we are right now?
BROOKS: I don't know if I'm surprised but I'm pleased that the adoption is going so well. I think partly it's because electric vehicles are nice to drive, they're fun to drive, and can be more convenient than a gas car if you have a regular place to charge, say at home or work. I charge at home maybe once every three weeks. It's just so simple and convenient.
ZIERLER: I have to ask, what do you drive?
BROOKS: I have a Chevy Bolt that I bought new in 2017. I also have a Nissan Leaf that's 10 years old now.
ZIERLER: How has the Nissan held up?
BROOKS: It's OK. It's pretty amazing - the progress that's been made between the Leaf and the Bolt. And the Bolt is now already five years old. I like driving it but then some of the newer cars are pretty amazing too. But, I'm very happy with the Bolt. The Bolt has a little problem right now if you've heard. I don't know if you heard about it, that the battery packs can catch on fire.
BROOKS: So, GM has a major recall in progress now, and they're essentially replacing the battery pack in every Bolt that's been produced. So, that's a couple of billion dollars. That was very unfortunate.
ZIERLER: Carver Mead has a Chevy Bolt, and he has only good things to say about it.
BROOKS: Yeah. I'm quite happy with mine. It's small but big enough, it's very nimble, and it's not too wide, it's powerful and very fun to drive. And the energy economy is terrific. I get about 4.5 miles per kilowatt hour based on energy delivered to the car by the charging station, which is very good. It's definitely cheaper than gas even though in Southern California, Edison charges me about 21 cents per kWh for off-peak electricity these days.
ZIERLER: They charge a lot for gas too.
BROOKS: [laugh] Yeah, that's right, so it's still considerably cheaper than gas. I like the convenience of it, and never going to gas stations, and really never going to the dealer either. It's just been—
ZIERLER: Yeah, it's windshield wiper fluid and brake pads, right?
BROOKS: No, the brakes will never wear out because of regenerative braking. The motor is slowing the car down by generating power that goes back to the battery. I probably have close to zero brake wear after five years because essentially all of my slowing down is through regeneration. I almost never touch the brake pedal.
BROOKS: So, yeah, the brakes will never wear out [laugh], so you almost don't need them. But you need them for emergencies when you have to stop super-fast.
ZIERLER: So, it's really only wiper fluid?
BROOKS: Yeah, well, wiper fluid and your cabin air filter and that kind of stuff, which I do myself.
ZIERLER: Alec, what might we read into the fact that a Tesla is not in your stable?
BROOKS: [pause] I don't know. I didn't immediately warm up to Teslas. Partly, it's the vibe of the Tesla fanboys and things and—
ZIERLER: It's a status symbol now.
BROOKS: I arranged for me to borrow a Tesla Model S for a few days shortly after they came out. I drove it around for a while, and the acceleration was phenomenal. But it was a huge car. It wasn't a good fit for me because it's a way bigger car than I would want. I never really warmed up to Teslas. Now, there's just so many. [laugh] Just everywhere you look, there's Teslas all over.
ZIERLER: I think around Pasadena, South Pasadena, where I live, the Tesla Model 3 is easily the most common car you spot around town, I mean, by far.
ZIERLER: It's remarkable.
BROOKS: Yeah. Then I later did a—after I had my Bolt, Kim Reynolds from Motor Trend invited me to go do an on-road driving test with the Model 3 before it came out, we went out to the desert, and we had the Model 3 and we had the newest version of the Nissan Leaf, and we had a Chevy Bolt. We had three drivers, and we switched around between the cars. We drove all around out by Tehachapi and out in the desert, and we went to a proving grounds out there and got to drive them very fast around corners and things. One thing I didn't like about the Model 3 was the steering was always trying to do this autopilot function. To me, it made driving harder—you had to pay more attention than you do in a conventional car while driving and you're steering. But the Model 3 was trying to steer for you but I didn't trust it enough so that I could just relax. So, you end up fighting the steering wheel sometimes, or "you're thinking, OK, I'm coming up to this corner. Is autopilot really going to turn in time?" You're always worried that it's not going to work.
ZIERLER: That the car's not listening to what you're telling it?
BROOKS: No, not exactly, say you're on a curvy mountain road, and whether you crash or not depends on whether the car is going to take the turn. So you have to be totally alert and ready to take over at any time. If you're just doing the steering yourself in a regular car, you see the curve way ahead, and you just naturally start steering into the curve at the right time. So, I found the Model 3 was not a very relaxing car to drive because it was trying to do a lot of the steering for you but the way it steered was not always the same as I would have steered.
Surveying the EV Market
ZIERLER: Alec, given this surging demand from consumers, at the end of the day, the pickings are still pretty slim for somebody who wants to buy an EV. There really are not that many options. What do you think accounts for that, and when might that change?
BROOKS: I think there's more options than you think. There's a lot of options right now.
ZIERLER: Not relative to gas-powered cars. And I'll tell you specifically, I've got four kids, so I need a three-row vehicle. So, only the X—it's only the Model X right now.
ZIERLER: No minivans.
BROOKS: Yeah. Chrysler—whatever used to be Chrysler—has a plug-in hybrid minivan, I think. I think there are some things coming out that could be of interest to you. But, yeah, you're right, there's no minivan—not many minivan options these days.
ZIERLER: What do you think accounts for just how far ahead Tesla was six or seven years ago where the Big Three didn't have anything to offer? Germany didn't have anything to offer, and out of the whole of Japan—what?—the Nissan Leaf, maybe the Honda Insight? Why did the traditional car companies take so long or, really, how flatfooted were they in seeing what Elon Musk did, and how much of the market he was able to gobble up?
BROOKS: [pause] Well, the big companies were more ponderous, of course, because they had their own set of ways, and a long period of time investing in gasoline engines. So, they weren't approaching it with the zeal obviously that Musk was. I was at Tesla early on, and there was just a lot of excitement and a lot of pressure. It was a high-pressure environment. But I think the automakers have caught up in terms of their offerings. There's a lot of things coming out that you could cross-shop against Tesla. I think Tesla also created this focus on fast acceleration—they encouraged people to do drag races with their Tesla and post them online. So, I think that was a lot of what was the original appeal of Tesla. I think also Tesla definitely benefited from AC Propulsion's tzero. Musk himself said that was the spark that got Tesla going, got him thinking about electric cars being fast.
BROOKS: AC Propulsion kind of was right there at the beginning, and got left behind, so that was too bad. But I'm glad we got something started at least.
ZIERLER: Alec, where do you see China in all of this in terms of the research, in terms of the infrastructure, in terms of manufacturing and even marketing cars at the global scale?
BROOKS: Well, I think they're certainly a manufacturing powerhouse, and Tesla is manufacturing vehicles in China which are being exported to the US for sale here.
BROOKS: So, that looks pretty good.
ZIERLER: You talked about the ponderousness of the Big Three in the United States. What about in Germany? Are you surprised at how slow Mercedes and BMW, Volkswagen, how slow they've been to electric vehicles?
BROOKS: No, they've taken their time. In those countries, they also have a tradition of driving at very high speeds on the autobahn, and that's not a great environment for EVs with more limited energy capacity. But there are some of the things they're developing now, they're putting very big batteries in them so they can do some amount of autobahn touring. They're doing some pretty amazing cars over in Europe now that are the sort of high-end Model S competitors but they're probably much better built and much better developed overall. But they may not be as good for energy efficiency or that kind of thing. Tesla, you know, they started out drawing a lot of people from Stanford, people that had been involved in the Solar Car Racing at Stanford. They went and raced in Australia and some of the US solar car races. So, they had all these people that had real-world, hands-on experience of designing a solar car and making all the components work together, and all that sort of thing. When I was at Tesla very early on, it seemed like most of the technical people there were Stanford grads that had worked on those cars. There were some very smart people that they had there, and they worked really hard.
ZIERLER: Alec, let's take a high-level approach to comparing gas-powered cars and electric cars, circa 2021, in this transition, and in the assumption that, at some point in the future, electric cars will really become dominant in the fleet, the global fleet, the problems that electric cars have solved, the problems that remain that are just inherent in driving regardless of power source, and the overall improvement in the driver experience. So, let's start first from the power source, with carbon emissions. It's of course more complicated to say that just because EVs don't emit fossil fuel—carbon emissions that it's a 100% win. But if we can break that down a little more precisely, exactly how much better are electric cars for carbon emissions, overall, soup to nuts, from the battery production, all of it? How much of a net win is it really?
BROOKS: Well, the answer is I don't know. [laugh] But I've seen articles and things on that subject, and some articles claim that EVs sort of have higher carbon emissions from the manufacturing side, which could be possible. But I think I haven't delved into any of that in enough detail. On the fuel side, I think EVs are definitely a win on a carbon basis, and it will get better and better as we decarbonize electricity production. What I mentioned earlier is that EVs provide the opportunity to take electric power when it's being generated, and do mass customization on a per-car basis eventually to optimize the use of renewable energy for charging. For most drivers, EVs don't need to charge every day. If you're driving a huge, long commute, yes, you do charge every day. For me, I charge only every few weeks. But I wouldn't mind having my car plugged in but not charging whenever I am home, with charging turned on remotely only when it would be beneficial to the grid, for example to use renewable power that would otherwise have been curtailed due to lack of demand.
I did an experiment a few years ago where I automated charging of my car to charge only when the real-time wholesale price of electricity in California was negative. I wrote a little piece of software that continuously monitored the real time wholesale price in California and it turned on my EV charger only when the price was negative. Sometimes, it goes negative when there is more renewable generation than there is a market for. So, I just had a simple rule for charging my car. I said turn on the charger only when the price is negative, because that means it's surplus renewable electricity. It was a very interesting thing. Because I only charge my car every couple weeks I had such a huge window of time when I could charge in short spurts of surplus renewable energy that would have otherwise been curtailed (generation shut off). It actually worked moderately well. I was able to keep my car adequately charged using this surplus energy. It was all at the negative wholesale price of electricity. So, things like that – it would be interesting to see how far you could take it. Or if you had a lot of cars doing it, that would probably raise the price from negative to positive and provide a bigger market for renewable generation. If the negative price goes on too long, those generation sources can get curtailed - get shut off. So, there is the ability to increase renewable generation from existing sources when you can dynamically schedule that charging of cars, of course with the driver's permission. If the driver has to go get a full charge every day or on certain days, they can specify that.
ZIERLER: Just at a basic level, why is the production and manufacture of EVs so energy-intensive that it might raise into question just how carbon-friendly overall EVs are relative to gas-powered cars? What makes it so intensive?
BROOKS: I don't know the answer to your question. Is it so carbon-intensive compared to gas cars? I don't know. It could be batteries—making new batteries from raw materials. Maybe that's part of it but I don't know the details. But soon, we will have large-scale recycling of battery materials, which presumably would reduce the carbon footprint because you're not mining the materials. One of the founders of Tesla, J. B. Straubel, left Tesla and he started a company called Redwood Materials that is aimed at recycling battery materials. He saw the writing on the wall before anyone else that there's going to be a big market for recycling the materials that are in EV batteries. You can't just throw them away in a landfill, or try to mine all-new materials if it's cheaper to recycle them. So, he's doing very well. The company is in Nevada, I think, and they're getting a lot of investor capital. They're going to be very big, I think.
ZIERLER: Now, in terms of decarbonizing the electric grid, just roughly, where are we now in that process? So, for the average electric car driver, wherever they are in the United States, what are the opportunities they have to draw power that's not from a coal fire plant, for example?
BROOKS: Well, it's highly location-dependent and what utility you have and what your state's policies are. California's doing pretty well; Texas is not. [laugh] But Texas does have a lot of wind energy. But people do have the option of putting solar on their roof if they can charge at home during daylight hours.
ZIERLER: Just because putting panels on your roof is expensive?
BROOKS: Yeah. I haven't done the economics of it but it's—and it depends on where your car is. If you're at home, and you need to charge your car during the day. When you're at work, then it doesn't do you that much good to have solar power at home. I've noodled around with the idea of having super-simple solar charging for your car where you get rid of all the inverters and power electronics, and just connect a solar array of appropriate voltage directly to the vehicle's battery. So, with that connection, the battery will then essentially set the voltage of the solar panel which, if you match it approximately right, you can get close to the peak power out of the panel. No power electronics - just direct solar panel connection to the car. [laugh] That might be pretty cheap to set up. I don't know if it's practical but that might be one way to do it on the cheap. Solar panels from China are pretty cheap. You'd have to have a little electronic module to communicate with the car, I don't know if that'll ever happen but I think it might be a cheap way to do it.
ZIERLER: Alec, in terms of the driver experience, not going to gas stations, not going for regular maintenance as often, congestion and things like that, what are the real advantages of electric vehicles, and where might this be headed?
BROOKS: Well, to me, an electric vehicle like the Bolt is really fun to drive, and it doesn't make much noise. You can accelerate pretty fast and not make a lot of noise. You can accelerate very fast without making a spectacle of yourself because it's quiet.
BROOKS: —it's kind of a stealthy thing. It feels good also to brake and slow down with regenerative braking—knowing that you're not wasting energy in friction brakes.
ZIERLER: Do you see these trends holding for the trucking industry as well; semis becoming electrified?
BROOKS: Yeah, they're already doing trials in Europe of overhead catenaries, you know, not trying to do big batteries, but have it get power like a train or trolley from overhead wires so the driver just steers down a lane that's got the overhead electric wires. They're using basically train technology for the big trucks, and that makes a lot of sense.
BROOKS: I think driverless trucks may be coming our way because [laugh] we don't have enough drivers for trucks. So, that may be a solution there too.
ZIERLER: With a 10-year-old Leaf, and a 5-year-old Bolt, the next time you're in the market for a new car, what will you be looking for?
BROOKS: Electric, for sure. [laugh] No, I'd be looking for something that's similar in size to the Bolt—not some huge car like a Model S—but with something with more driver assistance functions like the smart cruise control and that kind of stuff, and good energy efficiency. The Bolt is tremendously energy efficient. The way they report the fuel economy of—the way EPA reports fuel economy of electric vehicles is in miles per gallon equivalent, which is so stupid because you don't buy your electricity in gasoline gallon equivalents. [laugh] Well, how about if you just say miles per kilowatt hour? When you usually pay for electricity by the kilowatt - hour, it obfuscates the situation by reporting EV consumption in MPGe, or "miles per gallon equivalent."
ZIERLER: The miles per gallon must be an easy way for consumers to translate their understanding of efficiency.
BROOKS: No not really - the carbon emissions of a gasoline-gallon-equivalent of electricity has nothing to do with the carbon emissions of a gallon of gas, or the cost of electricity vs gas per mile.
BROOKS: Many people don't know what they pay for a kWh of electricity. I have Southern California Edison, and I look at the electric bill, and I have a hard time figuring out how much I'm paying per kilowatt hour because there's so many line items and little things of all these different—Edison provides me the power delivery and the energy, and then there's another company that generates the energy. My electric bill is so complicated. I actually have two electric services at my house. I'm probably one of the only people in Edison territory that has this because back in the EV1 days, they offered to provide you with a second service so that you could have a special EV rate. So, I did that. Then, later on when I got the Leaf, they said, "Well, the way we implemented that service is no longer valid, and so you have to go back and have it charged on your home service." Then I complained. I said I wanted to be monitoring the energy use of the EV separately from my house. So, I made some calls to people I knew at Edison, and I finally got Edison to come out and put in a completely new separate wire to my house with a separate meter for—just for the EV rate. [laugh] So, I have that so I can separately track the energy that I'm using for the car.
ZIERLER: Given how good the Bolt is, what's the next frontier? What are some areas of improvement in electric vehicles in the future?
BROOKS: Well, weight reduction because if you get better batteries, they'll certainly help. But I think the next frontier is probably more driver assistance and convenience and that sort of thing. In my Bolt, I get about 5 miles per kilowatt hour, based on the energy in the battery. But based on the energy I buy, I'm getting about 4.7 miles per kilowatt hour, which I think is better than most other EVs. A lot of other EVs are down in the three miles per kilowatt hour range. Also, because of regenerative braking, I never use the friction brakes, so I'm not wasting any energy there, which I'm not sure all EVs do equally well. That's just a nice feeling to know that you're not wearing out any brakes. I don't have any brake dust on my wheels because I never use the brakes. [laugh]
ZIERLER: I've heard that for the Tesla Cybertruck, they're excited because it's going to provide power at the construction site for charging batteries for your cordless drills and saws and whatnot.
BROOKS: Yeah, and AC Propulsion actually pioneered that capability. It was in the tzero.
ZIERLER: Yeah. [laugh]
BROOKS: —because the AC Propulsion system could provide power in two ways : it could feed power into a grid connection or it could provide just a receptacle that you plug in to to provide AC power for tools, or even to charge another EV. One is like a current mode, and one's a voltage mode, so they're two different modes. Alan developed the electronics to work both ways, which was really very clever. And that was 20 years ago!
BROOKS: I think 2021 really was the tipping point – almost all the major automakers committed to move toward 100 percent electric vehicles over the next decade.
BROOKS: I think General Motors was one of the first – they announced that by 2035, all of their cars would be electric—they won't sell a gas-powered car model at all by then.
BROOKS: And a lot of other auto manufacturers have similar—yeah.
ZIERLER: Are you optimistic that that's going to make a real dent in the overall climate agenda?
BROOKS: Well, not necessarily. It depends on what happens to electrical generation, right—
BROOKS: —I mean, if we start burning more coal. But I think renewables are getting to where they're cheaper than a lot of conventional generation sources. That was actually what—when I went to Google, I was hired on as part of a team at Google called RE<C. Its mission was to come up with renewable generation that was cheaper than coal-power generation. That was the task of this group. [laugh] Then the group had, as a side project, electric vehicles, and charging of electric vehicles. Just developing them but just encouraging them, and working on the Google Campus on getting more charging in place.
ZIERLER: Alec, switching gears just to get a sense of your sensibilities, the way you approach these problems. So, on the spectrum from engineering to science, some people draw very sharp distinctions between what engineers do and what scientists do. Some see it as one big mix of approaching problems and thinking about things. To the extent that there is that spectrum, where do you see yourself on it?
BROOKS: Pretty much on the engineering end. Maybe we should get back to how this whole thing got started with AeroVironment, and that led to the GM Impact, and that sort of thing. You want to talk about that first?
ZIERLER: Well, in order to get there to the way that you uniquely contributed to all of these projects, first of all, in your academic training, let's start there.
ZIERLER: So, from the academic training, was that strictly an engineering environment, electrical engineering? What were the degrees, the courses that were most important for what you would later go on to achieve?
BROOKS: Well, I'll start out by saying my father is a civil engineering professor at Caltech, now emeritus, and specialized in hydraulics, river flows, and sediment transport. So, it was natural for me to go into engineering. Civil engineering was a natural choice for me when I started college. I had done summer jobs a couple of times in the civil engineering field, so, I went to Berkeley in the Civil Engineering Department. Back then, in the fall of 1972, engineering was not a popular thing to go into, so it made it easier for me to get in. So, I was in civil engineering, but I sort of started gravitating towards mechanical engineering a bit and I tried to get out of having to take land surveying because I told them I'm never going to be doing land surveying. I tried to say I want to take this mechanical engineering course instead, or an advanced math course. They wouldn't let me. They said in order to get a civil engineering degree from Berkeley, you had to have land surveying. [laugh] So, I did it.
Back then, one of the key things that had got me interested in a lot of these vehicle things was, in my junior year I came across this announcement in Bicycling Magazine that there were going to be speed trials for human-powered vehicles in a few months' time in Irwindale, California, just nearby. So, a friend of mine in civil engineering and I decided we would build a bicycle and compete in this event. We thought it was a cool opportunity. I had been interested in airplanes and gliders since middle school. So, we embarked on building this brand new bicycle from scratch. We had a student shop in Berkeley that we could use to build it. We found a professor that would give us a couple of credits for independent study, but he didn't participate at all.
ZIERLER: What was your frame material?
BROOKS: Aluminum. Big aluminum sheets. It was a very long recumbent bicycle, and very heavy because my father helped me do some structural analysis, and as a civil engineer he wanted it to be designed like a bridge and it was way heavier than it needed to be.
BROOKS: Actually, I'd say the first idea for a bicycle like that came from when I was in middle school, and I had a new friend there named Taras Kiceniuk. He was interested in flying gliders as I was as well. We took glider flight instruction together and we both soloed at about the same time. One day in gym class, for some reason we were talking about aerodynamic streamlining for making bikes go faster. He said something like: "Well, you could make a bicycle really low down, and put something like a glider cockpit or fairing around the whole thing, and you could make it go really fast." So, that kind of planted the seed back then. Taras and his father Taras Sr. are both Caltech ME graduates. Taras Jr. was later on the Gossamer Albatross cross-channel team and was at AeroVironment later to help build the GM Impact EV.
Back to the human powered vehicle race, that was the first time anyone had ever had a race or time trials like that. It was brand new. So, nobody knew what anyone else was going to make, so we all just showed up on the day of the event. So, that was kind of fun. We worked very hard on it, and we did some of our final construction of the fairing in the Caltech ME shop in the basement of Spaulding. Even though I wasn't a Caltech student, I got access through Taras, who was a Caltech student at the time. So, he helped quite a bit in building the fairing. At the speed trials in Irwindale we came out in fourth place at about 45 miles an hour and—
ZIERLER: Which is fast for a bike.
BROOKS: Yeah, it was pretty good. My partner in this project was Mark Capron. He was more athletic than I was. He was on the Berkeley rowing team, the crew team, so he was in very good shape. We had a good time at the speed trials, and we met some people that would later be important in my future career. One of them was Paul MacCready. Paul was interested in these things. He was interested in hang-gliding and knew Taras (who had designed and built a revolutionary new hang glider when he was in high school), so he was there and helped out at the timing table.
AeroVironment had been in business about 5 years then, and Paul arranged for AeroVironment to pay for the trophies for this event. He may have realized that I was the son of Norman Brooks, who he may have met at Caltech in the early 1950s.
ZIERLER: And MacCready was younger?
BROOKS: No, he was a few years older than my father. MacCready had heard of my grandfather, Charles F. Brooks, more than my father because my grandfather was the founder of the American Meteorological Society.
ZIERLER: Oh, wow.
BROOKS: Yeah. [laugh] MacCready was into meteorology a lot, and so he had heard of my grandfather more than my father. [laugh] So, that could have helped me get a job at AeroVironment too. But, also, I was interested in flying. I started learning to fly gliders when I was in middle school. MacCready was a US national champion glider pilot, so that was another common interest I had with him.
ZIERLER: Now, in gravitating from civil engineering to mechanical engineering, is the heart of it that you liked building stuff? Is that really the source of the interest?
BROOKS: Yeah, I like building things. But, I kind of realized that I wasn't that interested in building buildings or soil mechanics or typical civil engineering things, and I liked things that were more mechanized like vehicles and aircraft. At Berkeley I took some mechanical engineering classes. I took thermodynamics, which was not a civil engineering requirement. I took a class in aircraft performance evaluation, which was a mechanical engineering class. I took an aircraft structures class. So, I got a civil engineering degree with the bare minimum of required civil engineering classes that I could take. I branched out so it was much more broad. So, that served me well. My thermodynamics professor much later became the chairman of the California Air Resources Board, which was interesting, Robert Sawyer.
ZIERLER: What about electrical engineering? When did that come into the picture?
BROOKS: Well, it never…I mean, for a long time I was not very knowledgeable about electrical things. I did electrify one of our human-powered vehicles for an electric race that was a special competition that I organized at a human powered vehicle speed event in the early 1980s. The electric race was a short road race, and that race taught me how little I knew about electricity and motors.. [laugh]
BROOKS: I think I got a little more into electrical things early on at AeroVironment. One of the very first jobs I had at AeroVironment was helping in the conceptual design of a high-altitude, solar airplane that could fly for months at a time. That was more big picture—I didn't do any detailed electrical design. My work involved keeping track of electric power flows, and solar generation, and how much power the motors use. Then later, AeroVironment got this kind of odd project to make a flying pterodactyl replica. This was done in connection with the Smithsonian and the head of Johnson Wax Company, Sam Johnson. We got funding to do this and I was put in charge of it. It had to be flight-worthy and be able to flap its wings. It had to have active control of yaw because it had this giant head out in the front, so it had to have active control of the angle of the head to keep it from flipping around backwards.
So, I immediately thought of Alan Cocconi because I had known him from Caltech, and I knew he was kind of a whizz in electronics and airplanes. So, we brought him on the team, and he worked very hard on that project. We made a semi-successful pterodactyl. It had an 18-foot wingspan, which was half-scale, and we got it into the IMAX movie "On the Wing" which was about the history of flight. It was difficult to fly and took a pretty big crew, but in the end, it was all a success. [laugh] There was an article about the project in Engineering and Science. So, I started learning from Alan about autopilots and what power electronics were all about. Alan and I were driving out to Simi Valley together, where AeroVironment's airplane shop was.
During the drive, we would be talking about electronics and all kinds of stuff every day for quite a long time, so I learned a lot from him. When the Pterodactyl project was winding down, our next big project appeared out of the blue. I saw an announcement on the AeroVironment bulletin board that there was going to be a solar car race in Australia later that year. So, I sent away for the rules—you had to actually mail a letter back then — because I was interested in possibly entering as a private entry—
BROOKS: —not knowing how hard it would be. But I'd been doing this human-powered hydrofoil watercraft with my friend, Dr. Abbott, who was a medical doctor, and we were very successful in that. But we thought, well, let's find another project we could do together. One of the things we considered was entering privately in this race, so I sent away for the rules. Then around the same time, Paul MacCready got a call from Ed Ellion from Hughes. Ellion knew MacCready from Caltech. Hughes had been recently acquired by General Motors—Hughes Aircraft Company. So, the guy in Australia who was organizing this race sent an invitation to Roger Smith, the chairman of GM, inviting GM to enter the race. This race had never been done before – it would be the first time. So, Roger Smith sent the invitation to Hughes, and said, "What should we do about this?" Then, Ed Ellion from Hughes said, "We should talk to Paul MacCready," who had just recently flown a solar-powered plane across the English Channel. [laugh] So, that's how AeroVironment got involved. Then Paul MacCready told me about it, and I said, "Oh, I already know about that race. Let's do it." I was totally gung-ho. So, we got started, and the timing was incredibly short for us. We had about four months to develop the car and two months to test it. [laugh] We did it, and we basically had almost unlimited money to do it. If you're doing this for GM, you have to win.
BROOKS: GM was spending so much more than anyone else in the race. We had to win, so there was a lot of pressure. But we did a very good job, and it was a good team. I was one of the drivers in the race. The other drivers were from Australia's GM-Holden group, and from GM in Michigan, and GM Europe. It was a good team, and we had very good technology.
The Multiple Benefits of EVs
ZIERLER: Now, in terms of your overall motivations, no matter what you're working on, is it always about bigger, faster, better, or are there social components as well where your motivations are in improving the way things work because that's better for how humans live?
BROOKS: I think I certainly bought into renewable energy, and how to better make use of it in cars and things. Things like the solar race or the pterodactyls were just very cool things to do. Once we got started on the solar car, and I was in charge of that project, there was a tremendous amount of pressure that I felt that was probably personally generated. But this would be a career-ender if we end up losing or if the car doesn't work. [laugh] We have to win—there's just no option of not winning—if you want [laugh] to have a future career. We won by several days in the end, and it was a huge success. Then GM—one of the reasons GM did it, to their credit, was they wanted to get younger people, like down to grade school, more interested in cars and science because they wanted to have a better pool of people to eventually come work for them.
So, after the race, they took the car around on a tour of elementary schools and middle schools, and then they had a speaking tour at colleges. So, I and several others went all over the country, and spoke at a bunch of universities. We talked about the project. Then they funded AeroVironment to develop a course at Caltech. It's probably still there, but it was called Case Studies in Engineering in the Aeronautics Department, and it was just like a one-time thing. Every year or two, they would have a case study as a one semester or one-quarter course. GM funded AeroVironment to do a case study on the Sunraycer, so we had all the different disciplines come in and give lectures about aeronautics and electronics and everything that went into the car, from Hughes and AeroVironment and General Motors. So, we went—we did all these lectures at Caltech, and there's a big published volume now. It was published by the SAE.
I've brought you a book about the Sunraycer that GM commissioned well before the race.
BROOKS: —you can keep it if Caltech doesn't have a copy.
ZIERLER: I'll say for the audio this is the book Sunraycer by Bill Tuckey. OK.
BROOKS: Yeah. So, this book was intended to track the whole Sunraycer project, and tells the story of it.
ZIERLER: Oh, wow. Thank you.
BROOKS: So, this is the second edition. The first edition came out quickly, like a month after the race, and it was a little bit rough. This one was subject to a lot more editing. There were two editors for the second edition: me and Bruce McCristal, head of public affairs for GM Hughes Electronics, and we went through it line-by-line, and refined the text and added some more photos.
BROOKS: So, it should be relatively accurate.
ZIERLER: This is beautiful. Thank you.
BROOKS: It tells the story of what happened.
ZIERLER: OK. [laugh]
BROOKS: So, when the solar race was done, we were saying what are we going to do next? This whole Sunraycer thing is now over. It was actually a big source of revenue for AeroVironment too. [laugh] So, it was like from a business standpoint, where do we take this next? Wally, Alan and I had definite views on where we could go, and we were thinking let's make a prototype of what a modern electric car could be like, and make it a car that someone would want to drive. It's not just some putt-putt thing. Let's make it really fun, and make it very efficient, and just show what you can do with modern electronics, design and aerodynamics and that kind of thing. We had a lot of encouragement on this new project idea from Howard Wilson from Hughes—he was the Vice President at Hughes tasked with looking after the Hughes relationship with GM after GM bought Hughes. So, Howard and I made the rounds all around GM, and talked to all these different departments and divisions at GM about their ideas about electric cars.
We sort of did our homework on what GM had done previously on electric cars, what failed, and why it failed. We built up support for our project idea from the bottom up. People appreciated that we had asked for their advice. We asked people what we should do if we were going to try to make a modern electric car. Then we finally put together a written proposal, and took it to GM, and, surprisingly, fairly quickly they approved it. It was to make one demonstrator car. The proposal included a vision for the type of car and the target range and acceleration. We tried to show them why our approach was better than anything that had been done before.
ZIERLER: Alec, I asked you before about the engineering and science spectrum. To what extent does that overlap with the basic science or fundamental research side, and the applications? So, for you and your collaborations, have you always slotted in on the application side, or have there been opportunities where you've been more involved in the fundamental research?
BROOKS: I'd say it's more on the application side. There were clearly advances in power electronics and semiconductors — I didn't really track them much. But people like Alan and Wally knew what was coming. It's also how you design the circuitry to put these things together, and what you can do with new faster switching devices. Alan had previously made a fairly small and lightweight solar inverter that was part of a DOE project. I think that's how Wally first met Alan. Alan was an expert in MOSFET transistors. But the key was really intelligent application of the best devices you could get, and smartly purpose-designing the electronics.
One of the things that AC Propulsion—so, I was at AeroVironment, and then Alan went off on his own after the Impact was done. He kept working on electric cars, and he started AC Propulsion Company. He was going to do a sports car that was like another step up in performance from the GM Impact – twice the acceleration, so 0 to 60 in four seconds instead of eight seconds. So, it would be something that really opens your eyes. It's very fast. [laugh]
Alan and Dave later recruited me to go to AC Propulsion. Wally Rippel had already left AeroVironment to go to AC Propulsion. Wally worked in my group at AV. We hired him away from JPL. Then he left AeroVironment after a while and went to work with Alan to start AC Propulsion. Then he came back to AV again after a couple of years. [laugh] Then later, AC Propulsion came to me and said, "We want you to come and run our tzero car program." [laugh] So, they offered me a pay cut. [laugh]
BROOKS: But I took the job. I was getting tired of AeroVironment. I was in charge of a big group of around 60 people. I was just getting tired of that. I had to put a lot of effort into trying to find business all the time, and grow the business. So, I took a leap, and jumped into this tiny, little car company. I was there for maybe two or three years. Then I finally went back to AeroVironment in the end, probably just at the wrong time [laugh]. There were several of us in the company that were the principals of the company. There was Alan and Dave Sivertsen and me and Tom Gage and Paul Carosa. There were five principals. When the funding got tight, they cut the salaries of the principals down to almost nothing, but the other staff were paid without any cuts. It was the higher paid people that got cut. We were trying to go raise money. We took the tzero up to Silicon Valley, and we did drag races with the tech guys. But we couldn't get traction. So, I eventually Isaid, "I can't take it anymore. I'm leaving." [laugh] So, I went back to AeroVironment.
Then one of the things we did shortly before I left is we started thinking about putting lithium batteries in cars because we—
ZIERLER: It was lead-acid at that point.
BROOKS: Yeah, it was lead-acid, and we were aware that some laptop computers had lithium batteries in them now. So, Alan and I—Alan was doing some electric airplanes as a hobby, and so he was interested in lithium batteries. So, I helped him figure out how we could buy maybe a couple dozen of these little lithium cylindrical cells, and we bought some. I think we could buy them because we were a company —you couldn't buy lithium battery cells as a private individual, really. We bought them, and then we started thinking about, well, gee, these cells might be—if they're able to be all connected together properly, they could go into an electric car. So, we actually showed that as an option to the California Air Resources Board way back then. Then shortly after I left AeroVironment, I think Martin Eberhard, one of the founders of Tesla, went to AC Propulsion, and commissioned them to put lithium batteries into a tzero because it would reduce the weight considerably, and increase the energy storage considerably, so it was a double win. That was happening after I left. But they did it. They got the car, and it went up to like 300 miles' range or something, and 0 to 60 in like two and a half seconds. It was just a phenomenal change to the car.
That was what Martin Eberhard sort of took around in Silicon Valley to drum up support to try to get Tesla launched. Then, meanwhile, Elon Musk and J. B. Straubel had independently thought about making an electric car, and then they went to AC Propulsion to see what they were doing. The story I heard is that they offered, or Musk offered, to help them fund the production of the tzero sports car. But back then, the tzero was really a prototype, and then there were so many changes needed to make it a saleable car that would meet federal safety standards, it was really tough to do. So instead, AC Propulsion had started to do conversion vehicles of some Toyotas or something, so it was very plain; not very exciting. So, they turned Musk down but they connected Musk to Eberhard, which eventually led to formation of Tesla Motors.
A couple months after I went back to AeroVironment, I got a call from Martin Eberhard, and he said he wanted to have lunch with me. [laugh] So, he brought these two other guys with him, and he says, "We're going to start an electric car company that makes electric sports cars, and we want you to join us." [laugh] And I said, "Are you crazy?" I said, "Do you know how hard that is going to be?" [laugh] Having just a—
ZIERLER: What did you know that they didn't?
BROOKS: Well, because I had just left AC Propulsion. The company was running low on money, and I knew first hand how hard it is to make a production electric sports car. I turned them down. I said, "No, I have a steady paycheck now, and I'm not going to go back [laugh] into that." [laugh]
BROOKS: So, that may be another of my mistakes. But later—I forgot when—it was maybe after the Roadster was sort of semi-public—you know, they had done a coming out—I got invited by J. B. Straubel to go to the reveal of the Roadster. It was in Santa Monica at this hangar. So, they had a big party there. Elon Musk and Martin Eberhard were there. That was fun.
Then not too long after that, I got a call from Martin and J.B. Straubel, and they said, "We want you to come work at Tesla." [laugh] By then, they had probably 120 people or something like that. So, I went up there for an interview, and they convinced me to leave AeroVironment where at the time I was chief engineer for this project to make a large hydrogen-powered high-altitude airplane. I had a very long commute from Pasadena to Simi Valley. The airplane development was nearly finished at that point and flight testing would start soon. So, I decided to jump at the chance to get back into EVs. I didn't move north so it was a little unclear how it was going to work out. I'm going to be employed by Tesla but live in Pasadena.
ZIERLER: Yeah, and this is before Zoom.
BROOKS: Yeah. So, I did a few things. They were able to do presentations over the web. So, I was traveling a lot and spending a couple of days a week at Tesla in San Carlos. I think I was doing two or three days a week—two days a week up there, and three days a week down here every week. That was a really turbulent time at Tesla. The Roadster was not out yet. Prototypes were made. But it had a two-speed transmission initially to get the acceleration they wanted, but the shifting of the transmission was not properly engineered. It would frequently break something in the transmission when you shifted gears. There was the inertia of the motor spinning, and when you shift, you need to suddenly slow the rotor down by a huge amount, and it puts a big forces on the bearings and the gears.
At that time there was a power struggle between Elon Musk and Martin Eberhard. Martin Eberhard was the president of the company, but Musk was really the president. [laugh]
BROOKS: The company went through several presidents in the time I was there. Wally Rippel was at Tesla when I started there. Then one day Wally got laid off as part of many layoffs that were happening at Tesla around then. I was nominally Wally's boss at the time, and I didn't find out about it until it was already done. Then it looked to me like Tesla was at risk of failing. I wish I had better foresight. The people at Tesla were very smart. They had a lot of people out of Stanford from the Stanford Solar Car Program. I didn't have a direct role in getting the roadster launched, and seeing all the layoffs going on, I said to myself, "I'm going to leave before I get fired or get laid off." So, I called up my old friend from AeroVironment, Alec Proudfoot, who was then at Google, and I said, "Do you think there's any role for me at Google?" He told me this is a very good time because they're putting together a team for this new RE<C (Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal) Project, and they're also doing some EV stuff." So, he got me in the door at Google for an interview. I bypassed the initial phone screen and started with an on-site interview, which went very well so I got the job at Google. That was pretty fun for a few years. But eventually they canceled the RE<C Program because it was overtaken by events because the market was driving renewables to be so cheap that there was no longer a need for Google to be involved. They didn't lay me off. They just said, "You have a couple of months to go find a job in a different part of Google." But there weren't that many suitable places for me there. Maybe Google X might have been something that—
ZIERLER: Their research arm.
BROOKS: Their research arm. But I was also traveling away from home a lot to spend a few days a week at the Mountain View headquarters. Around that same time, AeroVironment asked me if I would make a presentation about my prior work at AeroVironment at the company's 40th anniversary celebration. I said, "OK, I'll do that." So, I went and gave a presentation there on all their early stuff at AeroVironment that I was involved with. Then not long after that, I got this offer to rejoin AeroVironment in a pretty good position. It was the chief technology officer of this group in Monrovia that did EV charging products and other power electronics products. That was very fortuitous timing because I was trying to figure out if I'm going to try to stay at Google or what to do if I'm not staying at Google. So, I just slotted right back in at AeroVironment again. [laugh] So, I was at AeroVironment three separate times.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Alec, for our remaining time today, just to give a sense of the legacy of science and engineering in your family—you mentioned your grandfather, Charles—does it go back to his father or even farther, or was Charles in your family the first person to really make a mark in science and engineering?
BROOKS: My great-grandfather Morgan Brooks was an electrical engineering professor at the University of Illinois. He had been involved in some early work on dial telephones and rotating electrical machines. On my mother's side, my great grandfather Julius Nelson was biology professor at Rutgers University. So, there's some science backgrounds. My father's uncle Frederick Brooks was a professor at UC Davis, and he invented those wind machines that keep crops and wine grapes from freezing at night just by blowing air around, and stirring up the atmosphere so you don't get these cold spots. He invented those and these smudge pots that put a little bit of heat out into the air.
ZIERLER: Did you know your grandfather, Charles, when you were growing up?
BROOKS: No, I met him only once a little before I was three. Unfortunately, he died of a sudden heart attack in 1958. That was really sad because he wasn't that old and I never got a chance to know him. He was the director of the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory, which was part of Harvard. He also was involved—do you know the East Coast much at all?
ZIERLER: I'm from the East Coast.
BROOKS: OK. Where? Which state?
ZIERLER: I'm from New York.
BROOKS: OK, OK. So, in New Hampshire, there's Mount Washington, if you're familiar with that.
ZIERLER: Yeah, sure.
BROOKS: My grandfather was instrumental in restarting the observatory on the top of Mount Washington, the meteorological observatory, and so they had a sort of continuous presence of people up there taking records and things like that. That's where they measured the highest wind speed ever recorded until more recently: 231 miles an hour. He wasn't there at the time. But, apparently, he was listening on a radio connection, you know, audio or a shortwave radio during the time it happened. They had this heavy-duty anemometer that was spinning, and it was making clicks. The way they would measure windspeed is they would count the number of clicks in a 10- or 20-second period or something like that; enough time that you could get some accuracy. So, he was hearing the record wind speed clicks in real time from Blue Hill in Milton, Massachusetts.
ZIERLER: And your father was born in Massachusetts?
BROOKS: Yeah, he was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. Back then, my grandfather was a professor at Clark University, and you may remember. Another thing about my grandfather: you may remember that the father of rocketry in the US was Robert Goddard, and he was at Clark University too. He asked my grandfather to help him find a new place to do his rocketry experiments because I guess it wasn't too popular for making rocket tests in Massachusetts. [laugh] He wanted my grandfather to help him find an unpopulated place in the country that had the right weather and other characteristics. My grandfather recommended New Mexico to him. [laugh] That's where he did his rocketry experiments after that.
ZIERLER: And your father came out to California for Caltech, or he was already out here?
BROOKS: No, he came out for Caltech.
ZIERLER: Where was his education?
BROOKS: Harvard. He did a bachelor's degree in math, and then he did a sort of combined math and civil engineering master's degree, also at Harvard. Then he applied to grad schools. I think he applied to University of Iowa, and Caltech, and got into both. He asked my mother which one she preferred, and…
ZIERLER: They were married already at that point?
BROOKS: Yes. She said, "Let's go to California."
ZIERLER: Yeah. [laugh]
BROOKS: "Let's not go to Iowa."
BROOKS: Which was a good choice. So, he came to California in 1950 and, fairly rapidly, became an instructor in civil engineering starting in 1953 and associate professor in 1954 when he got his PhD. He rose up pretty quickly in the ranks.
ZIERLER: Do you remember who his advisor was?
BROOKS: Yes, Vito Vanoni. Vito Vanoni died many years ago. But Vanoni was active in soil conservation, and transport of sediments by flowing water. Caltech used to be pretty big in that field. There was a facility called the Sedimentation Lab over where the dining hall is now. It was a wood-framed building probably built in World War I or maybe after the Depression because in the US, there's this period in the Depression of topsoil being blown away, that led to the formation of the Soil Conservation Service. The Soil Conservation Service funded some basic research at Caltech for many years. My father did his thesis research in a flume in that Sedimentation Lab. Then there was a—I'm not sure how this came about, but the Keck Foundation funded a new building known as the Keck Lab. it was going to be a lab for both hydraulics and materials science, and maybe a few other areas. My father, as a young professor, designed the sub-basement hydraulics lab where all the flumes and hydraulics equipment was. He was right there from the beginning of the building. It was finished in 1960 I think. He has had the same office in Keck since 1960. What's that? sixty-two years. [laugh] I think he may be the longest-serving professor at Caltech – from 1954 to 2022. He's emeritus, of course.
ZIERLER: How old is he now?
BROOKS: He's 93.
ZIERLER: Oh, wow.
ZIERLER: Is he active at all? Is he reading papers?
ZIERLER: Is he writing?
BROOKS: No, but one thing I did a few years ago was I got him to do a Caltech oral history interview with George Porter from the engineering library—do you know George Porter?
ZIERLER: I haven't met him yet.
BROOKS: He knew my father pretty well, so he did the interviews, and they went pretty well. They're transcribed. They're not released yet but I could probably get you a copy—
ZIERLER: Oh, yeah.
BROOKS: —if you're interested.
ZIERLER: Did your parents buy a house in Altadena right away?
BROOKS: Not right away. They started at a rental in Pasadena when he was a student. Then in about 1957, they bought a house in Altadena. It was a pretty nice Spanish-style house on a street corner. That served well until our family grew bigger. Then my mother found this very big, Spanish-style house in Altadena, and they bought that one in 1964. They had it until a couple of years ago. They moved to Villa Gardens a few years before the house was sold. The house was vacant for a while. I had the job of sorting through my father's papers saved over about 70 years.
BROOKS: It was a big house, so he had lots of room to keep everything. That was a monumental job. I brought a lot of his papers over to Caltech Archives -- the more interesting things that I could find.
ZIERLER: Did your father ever consider faculty positions elsewhere, or that was a really easy transition from graduate school to the faculty here?
BROOKS: He did several sabbaticals. I don't think he ever considered leaving Caltech for another institution. He did one sabbatical in Thailand when I was very little [laugh], teaching at a university in Thailand for about five months. That was quite an adventure for him. Then later, our whole family went to Massachusetts where he was a guest professor for a year at MIT. It worked out that it was a swap because an MIT hydraulics professor came west to Caltech for a year, and he went east to MIT, and we actually swapped houses. So, we got to stay in their house, and they stayed at our house. [laugh] Then there was one more at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. He did that for half a year. Our whole family moved down there for half a year when I was a senior in high school.
ZIERLER: Alec, for next time, we'll pick up on when you enter the scene, and what it was like growing up in the household of a Caltech professor. So, we'll pick up on that.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Wednesday, December 1st, 2021. I'm delighted to be back with Dr. Alec Brooks. Alec, good to be with you again.
BROOKS: Good to be with you too.
ZIERLER: Alec, we tackled the big questions in electric cars and technology in our initial session. Now, let's do some personal history, going all the way back to the beginning for you. First, where were you born?
BROOKS: Pasadena, California [laugh], probably not far from here. It was called the Women's Hospital, which I think got bulldozed over by the freeway that eventually went through. My father was a professor at Caltech then.
ZIERLER: Now, how long was he here before you were born?
BROOKS: About four years. He became assistant professor in 1954, the year I was born. So, I suspect he's probably the oldest professor at Caltech. He's an emeritus, of course.
ZIERLER: Did your mom work outside the house?
BROOKS: No, she didn't. My father was busy—very busy—as a professor. He got involved in a lot of consulting work for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, pollutants dispersion and treatment and that kind of thing. Then he did a sabbatical in the late 1960—not really a sabbatical. But he went to Thailand for four or five months and taught at a university there. He wrote about the experience for Engineering & Science Magazine, in an article called The Challenge of Technical Assistance. It was in the October 1960 issue, which can be found online with a Google search.
I went to preschool at Pacific Oaks in Pasadena. I was in a carpool with Bart Hibbs, who I later worked with a lot at AeroVironment on projects including the Sunraycer and Impact. He was involved in the aerodynamic design of those vehicles and ran the wind tunnel tests of models of those vehicles at the 10-ft Merrill tunnel at Caltech. After preschool I started kindergarten at a local Altadena public school.
ZIERLER: Now, was your family already in Altadena by the time you were born?
BROOKS: No, they moved there when I was about two. I went to public schools in Pasadena and Altadena, and that was generally a pretty good experience. My father took a sabbatical to MIT when I was in third grade, so we all moved to Lexington, Massachusetts. So, it was kind of interesting being in a completely different environment for a year. Then when I was a senior in high school, in the first semester as a senior, my father had a sabbatical at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla. So, we went down there for about six months.
Overall, I have mostly lived around here in Altadena and Pasadena. In 2020 my sisters and I sold my parents' house in Altadena. That was a major task because the house had been in the family for 56 years.
ZIERLER: Big cleanout.
BROOKS: Yeah, big cleanout.
Caltech Childhood Roots
ZIERLER: Now, growing up, did your father include you at all in his research, in his engineering? Did you have a basic idea of what he did on a day-to-day basis?
BROOKS: Yeah, I did. He would bring me along on various field trips or outings with his students. He took field trips with his students up in the local mountains, and he often brought me along on those. Then, my sister and I always liked to go to the Keck Hydraulics Lab here on campus. Back in about 1960 my father had designed the flumes in the sub-basement of Keck Lab, so he was kind of like the academic lead for that lab. It was quite a large lab, the full length of the building. That was fun. The sand for our sandbox at home came from the old sedimentation lab that was being dismantled in the mid 1950s.
BROOKS: My father lifted me and my sister up into the flume, and gave us a bucket to scoop out the sand—
BROOKS: —to take home. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Now, were you a tinkerer as a kid? Did you have model airplanes, chemistry sets, those kinds of things?
BROOKS: Yes. It was mostly model cars and planes. I also liked to assemble Heathkits. The most complicated one I did was a five-channel radio control system.
I was interested in space travel because JPL was associated with Caltech, and they were launching spacecraft to the moon and that kind of thing. So, I followed those a lot, and followed all of the NASA manned space program a lot. I was glued to the TV whenever they were having a launch or a return. Along the way, I got interested in model airplanes and model cars, and I did slot car racing for a while. That was a hot thing for a few years, and then it kind of disappeared. Do you even know what that is?
ZIERLER: It's before my time. What is slot car racing?
BROOKS: It's basically you have a track that has a slot in the track for guiding a little electric car, and you had a little hand controller that could vary the voltage to the car to change its speed. You could get sets for home use and for a few years there were businesses with a slot car tracks that would set up a little storefront. They'd have a big, huge track with a lot of parallel lanes, and you'd go take your car, and buy time in a lane on the track. [laugh] So, yeah, it's interesting. I guess people now have never heard of such a thing.
I was also interested in airplanes. At first, I did control line planes that, you know, you have a hand controller with strings to the plane, and you turn around in a circle, and this plane flies around you in a circle, and you can make it do loops and things. My father tried it once right out behind the Keck Lab on a weekend, and he got dizzy in like one turn, because you have to continually turn. [laugh] He got dizzy, and then the plane went straight over his head, and smacked down vertically into the pavement [laugh], and destroyed it. So, I didn't let him do it anymore.
Then I got into radio controlled planes in high school, and did that for a while. I was also interested in flying as in actually being in the plane, so I managed to convince my father that I could take flying lessons in a glider. He figured that was safer than a power plane, which may or may not have been true. I had to work to pay for the lessons, so it kind of limited how fast I could progress. But I eventually soloed. That was a common interest I had with somebody I met at middle school named Taras Kiceniuk, Jr. His father Taras Kiceniuk, Sr was a Caltech MSME alum and worked in the old hydrolab on campus. Taras Jr. had started to learn to fly gliders a little bit in India, where his father had participated in a program in the 1960s where American engineers and professors spent time in India to help get the Indian Institute of Technology campuses up and running. So, Taras Jr and I had common interests and became good friends. We did various projects and things together. We used to walk to middle school together - he would come by my house a little early and we would go out in the front yard and fly my little (but loud) control-line model plane around in circles on the front lawn. He later came to Caltech as an undergrad ME major. In high school, he developed and built two hang-gliders. This was very early in the whole emergence of hang-gliding. He was one of the pioneers. He developed a revolutionary fixed-wing biplane hang-glider he called the Icarus that had double the performance of conventional hang gliders of the time.
ZIERLER: That's a bold name for a plane. [laugh]
BROOKS: Yeah [laugh], He got on the cover of a lot of magazines, and I think he was featured in Engineering & Science too. I kept in touch with him for quite a long time after we graduated from high school. He lives out in Santa Paula now. He joined AeroVironment to work on the GM Impact car with us. Among other things, he designed and assembled the electric heat pump system for the Impact - the first ever installed in a car.
ZIERLER: What was your first car? What were you driving when you first got your license?
BROOKS: A Honda 50 motorcycle. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Oh, yeah?
BROOKS: Yeah, because you could drive a motorcycle on the street at age 15 and a half, and you could do it by yourself. I actually convinced my parents to let me get a motorcycle well before that. We had a pretty big driveway at our house, and I would just go roaring up and down the driveway. [laugh]
BROOKS: So, yeah, I rode motorcycles for a while. Then my first car…when I was in La Jolla during part of my senior year in high school, a couple of friends and I got interested in Packards. My father's family had had a 1923 Packard touring car. My friends and I decided to buy a Packard, thinking that it would be good transportation to get to school. We found a 1951 Packard Clipper sedan for sale for $50. [laugh] So, we pooled our money and bought it. It didn't run, so we had to pay extra to get it towed. [laugh] We eventually got it working after doing a valve job on it parked on the street in La Jolla. Then later we bought a Packard limousine for about $250. Cars were cheap back then.
ZIERLER: Alec, at a very elementary level, did you have an appreciation of the connection between smog and combustion engines when you were a kid?
BROOKS: I think so, yeah, because you could see the exhaust coming out of cars and feel it in your lungs and eyes. My father used to tell me and my sisters about Arie Jan Haagen-Smit, and how he was famous for making this connection between car exhaust and smog when he was at Caltech. He was proud to [laugh] be at the same place as someone like him. So, I knew about that all from the very beginning, really.
ZIERLER: Now, in middle school and high school, was it math and science that you were most into, or you were more well-rounded?
BROOKS: I don't know if I was into—most of the things I wasn't into [laugh], actually. I wasn't that great of a student. I probably did best in math and some science, but I wasn't a terrific student back then. [laugh] I got better when I got to college. I actually got lucky because back when I graduated from high school, engineering was not a popular thing to go into in 1972.
BROOKS: Colleges didn't get a lot of applicants in that field, so that helped me get in, I guess. At the time, one of my father's former students Hugo Fischer was a professor at Berkeley in civil engineering. My father and I went up there one day, and Fischer showed us around. So, that encouraged me to apply to Berkeley.
ZIERLER: Did you think about Caltech for undergrad?
BROOKS: No. I don't think I would've gotten in.
ZIERLER: Even with your father?
BROOKS: No, I don't. That wouldn't have been fair to other people. [laugh] But it was—you'd get free tuition back then. I don't know if they still do that. But if you were a child of a Caltech employee, you got free tuition.
ZIERLER: Although public university tuition was probably pretty good back then.
BROOKS: Yeah. Berkeley I think was like $220 a quarter or something.
BROOKS: [laugh] So, that was a good deal too.
ZIERLER: So, you arrived in Berkeley in 1972.
ZIERLER: The antiwar movement was still going pretty strong at that point.
BROOKS: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it was going, and it was McGovern versus Nixon, the election. There was an election in November right after I got to Berkeley.
BROOKS: I was 17 when I started at Berkeley, and I turned 18 in late October, just in time for the election. So, it was the first election I voted in.
ZIERLER: Now, would you have been too young for the draft at that point, or how did that work?
BROOKS: I was.
ZIERLER: You were?
BROOKS: Yeah, I was. I never was at direct risk of being drafted, luckily. I don't know what I would've done. But there were various protests. That was the time when Nixon and all the Watergate stuff was going on. So, there were a lot of big protest rallies on campus.
BROOKS: Another thing that was pivotal in the kinds of things I ended up doing in my life was getting involved in bicycles and a very esoteric kind of bicycle racing—or it wasn't even called a bicycle—but a human-powered vehicle. Around the beginning of my junior year, I saw this announcement in Bicycling Magazine that there were going to be speed trials for human-powered vehicles at the drag strip in Irwindale, California, late that spring – like four months away. So me and a friend in engineering, Mark Capron, decided to enter. [laugh] So, we came up with the idea of a recumbent bicycle where you're lying down, and we would put a full aerodynamic fairing over it. Neither of us had really built something like that before, so we learned on the fly. My father gave me some advice: how thick to make the aluminum sheets. He made it too heavy because he was a civil engineer, and you always have to have a big factor of safety [laugh]—
BROOKS: —that you don't need for bicycles. So, our result was a really heavy bicycle. But we got it finished. Taras Kiceniuk helped Mark and me at the end with the fairing construction. He showed us how to construct a lightweight fairing structure from aluminum tubes, pop rivets, mylar, and double stick tape, things he learned from building hang gliders. We built the fairing in the ME shop in the basement of Spaulding Lab here on campus the week before the race [laugh].
The race, really speed trials, was held on a weekend in late spring of 1975. We came in fourth place. We did about 44 miles an hour, which is respectable. Paul MacCready was there to help with the time keeping and to support it through AeroVironment, which was a very young company at the time. AeroVironment paid for the trophies. [laugh] So, he kind of started to get to know who I was.
ZIERLER: Now, your home department was civil engineering at Berkeley?
ZIERLER: And the idea there from your father, he was hoping you would go into buildings and infrastructure and things like that?
BROOKS: Yeah. Well, he was in water and hydraulics and that kind of stuff, so that's probably what he was hoping. But as I got into doing these bicycle projects, and given my interest in flying, I was really gravitating away from classical civil engineering. I tried to get the Civil Engineering Department to let me skip taking land surveying so I could take some advanced math class, and they wouldn't let me do it. [laugh] So, I had to take surveying. But I took some mechanical engineering classes. I took thermodynamics, an aircraft performance class, and an aircraft structures class. So, I was already moving away from Civil Engineering as an undergrad. But I did very well at Berkeley. I got very good grades.
ZIERLER: You got serious when you got to college?
BROOKS: Yeah. In my senior year at Berkeley, I decided to go on to graduate school; I didn't feel ready to start a regular job. I didn't know what kind of career I wanted yet and since I had done well in civil engineering so far, I thought I would have the best chance of being admitted to grad school in the same field. I applied to Berkeley, Caltech, and MIT, all for a Civil Engineering graduate program and I was accepted at all three. I chose Caltech for a couple of reasons – it was close to home and I was pretty familiar with it, and it appeared that there could be more opportunity for interaction with the other engineering departments like mechanical and aero since Caltech was so small. Pretty much, students in aeronautics, mechanical engineering, and civil engineering, if they're a first-year grad student, they all took exactly the same classes, so you could switch your field in the first year or two very easily without missing out on class work that you needed. Everyone was taking the same things. Also, the acceptance letter from Caltech came with the financial aid spelled out – I would get a full tuition scholarship and a stipend as a TA.
ZIERLER: Did you think about industry, not going on to graduate school, or that was—?
BROOKS: No, I didn't. I just couldn't think of anything I wanted to do when I was there because it seemed like the four years went by so fast, I wasn't ready to go do a regular job. So, I was happy to stay a student for a while longer.
Not long after I got started at Caltech I made an important connection at the student shop. It was run by students for students. The Caltech administration just gave them a room for the shop in the basement of Winet Center. I don't think that's there anymore. So, students would try to get donations of used milling machines and lathes and work benches and things like that. Over the years they had put together a very good shop, all administered by students. I had this bicycle—two bicycles actually, that I had built at Berkeley, and I decided I wanted to try to get a team together at Caltech based on those machines and refurbishing them or making them or rebuilding them with major changes. I met Dave Sivertsen, a biology undergrad, there in the student shop because he was the foreman of the shop and showed new members around. He later was one of the key engineers at AC Propulsion. Dave became a good friend and joined me in modifying and making new variants of the human powered vehicles from my time at Berkeley. For several years we participated in annual races that were held in Southern California. We recruited several Caltech undergrads and grad students to participate.
ZIERLER: He was a grad student at that time too?
BROOKS: No, he was an undergrad at that time.
ZIERLER: He was undergrad?
BROOKS: Yeah, and then he was later a grad student at Caltech. He took a long time to do his PhD. But he was involved in this human-powered vehicle racing with me for many years, and we built and modified our bicycles at the student shop.
In 1979 or so, I was in the student shop welding brazing a human powered vehicle frame together and I met Alan Cocconi down there, who was an undergrad. I was interested in what I was doing. I think he was working on a static test stand for a model airplane engine and propeller or something like that. He told me that he had come from Switzerland originally, but he had previously done all kinds of wind tunnel tests and had measured the efficiency of his propellers. I didn't believe him at first. I thought he was exaggerating.
BROOKS: But in hindsight I'm sure he actually did what he said. He was really talented and smart. We didn't interact a whole lot but he became aware of who I was. He knew Dave Sivertsen from the student shop, and so we all kind of knew each other. He'll come back later in the story. A lot of these connections were made at the student shop at Caltech.
Dave Sivertsen was interested in electric cars and had heard about this Caltech alum named Wally Rippel, who did this cross-country car race with MIT back in the late 1960s and had since made his own electric car for everyday use. Dave found out that Wally worked at JPL, so Dave invited Wally to campus for lunch to show us his electric car.
ZIERLER: It wasn't street legal, I assume?
BROOKS: No, it was street legal, plates and all.
ZIERLER: It was?
BROOKS: Oh, I think he had driven it for years by then. He made it off of a—I think it was a conversion of a small Datsun sedan. He took out the gas engine and put in lead-acid batteries and an electric motor connected to the original manual transmission. He put a lot of miles on that car. We had lunch in the basement of the Athenaeum.
ZIERLER: What was the charging like on that car? Do you remember?
BROOKS: I think he made the charger. At home he could plug it into a 240-volt circuit. He gave us a ride in it, and we thought it was pretty cool, and he told us all about the race with MIT.
ZIERLER: And did you have any idea what kind of range it had?
BROOKS: No, but it was probably good at the time.
ZIERLER: Obviously, though, good for getting around town.
BROOKS: Yeah, he could drive it to work, and drive to Caltech with it and that kind of stuff. So, that introduced me directly to Wally. I had known about Wally from the Great Electric Car Race coverage in the local Pasadena newspaper in 1968 during the race. I was following it every day during the race. The newspaper had a new update on the race every day.
ZIERLER: And you're like 14, 15 years old at that point?
BROOKS: Yeah. I would have been in eighth grade, I think. [laugh] So, I knew that this guy was from Caltech. Then we finally got to meet him. So there's me, Dave, Alan, and Wally. That was how we all got connected. It was all through Caltech.
ZIERLER: At that early juncture, what was your sense of the point of the solar-powered race? What was it demonstrating in actuality?
BROOKS: OK, jumping forward to the solar race in 1987, there had previously been some solar races in Switzerland called the Tour de Sol over fairly short distances. Cars for those races were not made to be super aerodynamic at the time. They were made just to be able to go on reasonably short daily stages, and have a new stage every day. But in Australia, an adventurer, Hans Tholstrup, had built a very crude solar car over the course of, I think, probably a couple of months, and had driven it west to east across Australia, and got some publicity for that. After that, he thought, "maybe we should hold a race for solar cars from north to south across Australia, and just let anybody in the world enter, and have some fairly simple rules?" [laugh] So, that was how that got started, and he put out the word as best he could that this race was going to happen in November of 1987. I was at AeroVironment at that point, kind of jumping around a little bit on what I was working on. At AeroVironment, I had recently been in charge of this project to make a flying pterodactyl replica, which I think we talked about the last time.
ZIERLER: Not on record though.
BROOKS: Yeah. So [laugh], that's another story. But, anyway, as that was winding up, I saw this notice on the bulletin board at AeroVironment in Monrovia that was an announcement for a solar car race in Australia. I was immediately drawn to it - initially I thought of it as a potential personal project to build and race a vehicle with just a few people involved. At that time I had recently been working on this personal project – a human-powered hydrofoil boat. A friend of mine from early human-powered vehicle races, Alan Abbott, and I decided we wanted to try to make the fastest human-powered watercraft, just to set a record, like a 2,000-meter record or a shorter distance record. We decided the way to do that was a hydrofoil. So, we set about to do that, and we ended up working on the concept for many years. We were quite successful. We made a very fast hydrofoil watercraft which we called the Flying Fish. The timing was fortuitous because we got it finished and working well right around the time of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. We wanted to set the 2,000-meter record to be faster than a rowing shell.
To do that, we would have to have a rider that could put out a lot of power to bicycle pedals for about five or six minutes. So, we looked at all the Olympic bicycle events and it turned out that six minutes was not too far different than the duration of the 4,000-meter pursuit race on a bicycle track. So, it happened that a local Olympic cyclist, Steve Hegg, won the 4000-m pursuit gold medal. So, we contacted him a few months after the Olympics, and said, "Hey, we've got this fast water hydrofoil bicycle and we want to set a new record with you riding it." [laugh] So, he was game, and so we went out, and he learned—it took a little bit of time for him to learn how to operate it but he did pretty well, and he certainly set the record. To this day, I think it still stands—
ZIERLER: Oh, wow.
BROOKS: —for a single person watercraft. So, anyway, that was a multi-year project. Then we eventually did another version designed for a very short distance, like 100 meters instead of 1,000 meters. It was much shorter. We got some very powerful sprinters, and we raced against MIT. So, that was a whole other thing. But, anyway, Allan and I were just coming off the 2000-meter record, and we were looking for some other project to do. At about that time I saw the flier announcing the upcoming solar car race across Australia and Allan and I were considering trying to compete in it.
I wrote right away to the race organizer in Australia just from my home address, not mentioning AeroVironment, and I said, "please send me the rules for the race" So, I received all of the details in the mail, and then around the same time I got that, Paul MacCready got a call from Ed Ellion of Hughes Aircraft Company (Caltech PhD 1953). Ellion knew Paul from the time both of them were grad students at Caltech in the early 1950s, and he knew that AeroVironment had recently flown across the English Channel in a solar powered plane they had built. Ellion told Paul he wanted to see if AeroVironment might be interested in collaborating with Hughes and GM (which had recently purchased Hughes) on a solar car for a race in Australia." So, Paul MacCready called me in to discuss it, and I said, "I know all about that race!" [laugh] So, I said, "Yes. Yes, totally, this sounds like a great adventure! Let's find a way to do it." I told him I had been thinking of entering the race as a personal project, but it would be way better to do it as part of my job. [laugh] The invitation to enter the race had originally been sent to Roger Smith, the chairman of General Motors. Smith sent it over to Hughes because they made satellites with solar power.
We had a very good partnership with Hughes, and we got initial funding from GM for an intense three-week feasibility study together with Hughes. I was in charge of the project at AV. We did a huge amount of work in those three weeks. Howard Wilson, the Hughes executive in charge of the relationship of Hughes with GM, was in charge of the overall development project. Howard came up with the name "Sunraycer". I quickly enlisted Alan Cocconi because he was an electronics wizard and had specific prior experience with solar peak power tracker electronics. During those three weeks of the feasibility study, Alan designed and built some prototypes of the electronics to prove you could make a very efficient peak power tracker for a small solar panel. We brought in some other people we knew from the Human Powered Vehicle Association to develop prototype quick-change wheels, all in those three weeks. We wanted to show GM that we had gotten off to a head start because there was so little time available. This race was going to be happening later that year and we were starting from scratch. There was not a lot of time. [laugh]. At the end of the three weeks I went to Detroit with Paul MacCready and Howard Wilson to make a presentation to the General Motors top brass on the 14th floor of GM headquarters in Detroit.
BROOKS: Bob Stempel, then head of the GM Truck and Bus division was very enthusiastic. He was the most senior person in the room at the time. Our presentation went through the technical approach, logistics, public relations opportunities, and overall feasibility given such a short time. We said, "Here's how much money we think we'll need, and we need to get started immediately if there's any chance of getting it done in time. And if we're going to do it, we know we have to win." Stempel was enthusiastic and said right away, "Let's do it," and he said, "this'll be great for getting young people interested in automotive engineering and new things relating to cars." He saw the education value of it right away. After the race GM did invest in related educational programs. The Sunraycer went on tour around the country visiting schools at all levels, and talking to students at all levels from grade school to universities. They put together some educational materials for students at different levels. And GM sponsored the startup of collegiate solar car racing in the US, partnering with SAE and the DOE. I think that these activities had a lot to do with getting more interest in electric cars. Stanford came to have a very active solar vehicle racing program and many from the Stanford team became key employees early on at Tesla Motors.
ZIERLER: Alec, back to Caltech, when you first met Wally, did that plant a seed that electric cars would be something that you might want to pursue?
BROOKS: I think that happened before I met Wally. In 1968 I was aware of Wally's cross country electric car race with MIT. I followed the race coverage every day in our local newspaper, the Pasadena Star News. I was just starting 9th grade at the time. I had a chance introduction to Wally when I was in 11th grade - I was star-struck to meet the winner of this big race.
When I was an undergrad at Berkeley I got into building and racing streamlined human-powered vehicles, and that got me thinking a little about making more efficient electric cars. I think when I was a senior at Berkeley, I made a crude sketch of a little two-seat sporty car with electric power. I was thinking I could make it from an available steel-tube dune buggy chassis with a bolt-on VW suspension, and to make a new streamlined body and add batteries and motor. I hope I find that old sketch sometime. [laugh]
A friend from EE up at Berkeley had built an electric motorcycle that he let me try out and that was a terrifying experience. It had a brush-type DC motor with a handlebar buttons for series or parallel connection of the batteries to the motor. It was terrifying to ride. I went up a hill. On the way back down the brakes were not up to the task given the very heavy batteries and motor. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Did you think back then that this technology would ever be widely adopted, or would it always be exotic?
BROOKS: Back then, it did not seem likely that it would be widely adopted. Even until a few years ago, I mean, even two years ago, I would've thought it would be kind of slowly adopted. But in 2021, it's just hit the inflection point, and EVs have just taken off.
BROOKS: That's been very satisfying to me, and probably to Wally and Alan too. Tesla Motors, which I think is the most valuable car company on Earth, I think it was inspired by the AC Propulsion tzero. Elon Musk said as much a few years ago:
We were in the right place at the right time at AC Propulsion, but I think we just didn't have the vision of how fast the EV business could grow and that EV adoption would happen so fast. Alan likes to work individually or in small teams, and you can't do that and make a gigantic business.
ZIERLER: Now, your work in the student shop, was that all extracurricular, that was just fun, or that was—you integrated that with your research, with your thesis work?
BROOKS: No, it was completely different. My thesis just required access to the campus mainframe computer.
ZIERLER: Who was your graduate advisor here?
BROOKS: Tom Hughes. You've probably never heard of him—
BROOKS: —because he was new —he had been a postdoc at Berkeley when I was there, and then he came to Caltech as an assistant professor at the same time I came to Caltech. So, I got to Caltech, and I didn't really know what I wanted to specialize in. Your first year as a master's student in engineering or aeronautics, everyone took the same classes pretty much, I mean, all the core classes, so it wasn't too important, you could change your major in the first couple of years). Professor Hughes specialized in finite element analysis, which was new to Caltech. It sounded interesting to me so I asked him to be my advisor. Do you know what finite element analysis is?
ZIERLER: I don't.
BROOKS: OK. It's basically doing numerical modeling of physics of either fluid flows or structures and things where you build up a numerical model out of little sub-elements, and they all connect together. You do this on a computer, so you end up with a set of simultaneous equations that you solve, and there's numerical algorithms, and there's some science and math behind it about, how do you know that your answer is reasonably correct, and that kind of thing. I thought that would be kind of interesting, and it was something that Caltech hadn't really done before. So, this was a new thing. Here was a new professor. That was his first year as a professor. So, I got to learn how to do computer programming in Fortran —operate the computers here on campus. In my first few years at Caltech, we used IBM punch cards to work with the IBM 370 mainframe.
BROOKS: You look at the data density, like you got a box of cards. If you calculate the weight ratio of that box of cards to a little SD card, it's remarkable how much it has changed. A 10-pound box of 2000 punch cards could store only 0.16Mb !) The Caltech IBM mainframe computer had only one megabyte of main memory [laugh]—
BROOKS: —and you had to pay extra to use the full megabyte on your run. [laugh]
BROOKS: So, one of the things I was interested in was fluid mechanics, probably from my father's influence. But there were things that hadn't been done very well with finite element analysis in fluid mechanics, and so I decided I would try to do improve the methods for finite elements for fluid mechanics, and make a contribution in that field, which turned out very well, actually, because my thesis had a very high number of citations, because it was published in formal journals.
Transient Flows Research
ZIERLER: What was your thesis research on?
BROOKS: Well, it was on a numerical calculation of the Navier-Stokes equations, which is just the basic fluid flow, incompressible fluid flow. My simulation was for transient flows – it was looking at simulating dynamic phenomena, which had not been done very well in the past with finite elements. The model problem I used to demonstrate the finite element formulation that I created was flow past a circular cylinder. Think of a flow of water through a channel, and it goes past a circular cylinder. What happens is if you get it above a certain Reynolds number, the flow gets unstable downstream of the cylinder, and periodic eddies are shed in the wake of the cylinder (sometimes called a Von Karman vortex street). No one had been able to simulate that phenomenon with finite elements before. My simulation was for two-dimensional flow by the way, because computers at the time didn't have enough memory for 3-d simulations. I think I was the first person that showed a successful dynamic calculation of this two-dimensional vortex shedding behind a cylinder.
ZIERLER: Did you see this more on the basic science end, or did you see real applications to the research?
BROOKS: I think when I was doing it, I was just sort of doing it for the science and for the development of the technique – making something as a worthwhile addition to the field. I didn't really know if I wanted to stay in that field when I left. I eventually decided I didn't want to.
My friends like Taras Kiceniuk and some people from the Human Powered Vehicle Association that I kept in touch with got involved with Paul MacCready's human powered Gossamer Albatross airplane that flew across the English Channel. They were part of that whole adventure. They were out in the boats during the flight across the channel, and here I was, up at Stanford [laugh] writing my computer programs. I sort of envied them that they were having this very adventurous life making aviation history. So, that convinced me that I ought to apply for a job at AeroVironment even though I didn't expect there would really be any direct uses of my thesis work there. But it turned out later that some of the programming techniques from my thesis work had some very good carry over to simulation work I was doing on a solar airplane project, and later hydrogen airplanes. So, my thesis work ended up actually helping me a lot, and it was a good experience.
ZIERLER: Besides Hughes, who else was on your committee?
BROOKS: George Housner, Jim Knowles, and John List. My thesis defense was a little unusual because Tom Hughes had already left Caltech after four years, taking the position at Stanford. I and a couple other of his students went with him, and for a year I was a registered student at both Caltech and Stanford. I finished my research and wrote my thesis while at Stanford. I tested my Navier Stokes code on the CDC supercomputer at NASA Ames, (which had fully 1 MB of memory!). Tom Hughes and I had to go back to Caltech for my thesis defense.
The qualifying exam was a real ritual for students of Thomas Lab. There was a close-knit group of students there, in fields of civil engineering, mechanical engineering and a little bit of fluid mechanics and applied mechanics. In Thomas Lab there had been a long tradition to help students prepare for their oral qualifying exams. It was called the "Bone Book", which was a set of leather-bound books that students could check out from the department secretary. The books contained journal entries by students describing their experiences in their qualifying exam, and they wrote about their experience in the book—
BROOKS: —and like what to watch for, you know, to try to avoid certain professors being on your committee. Reading the bone books, you kind of got a sense of what to expect, and which professors might throw you curveballs. The professors were not allowed to ever see these books. [laugh]
BROOKS: So, that was a terrific resource. Somebody should publish them at some point. [laugh]
ZIERLER: [laugh] I'm going to find out if it's still active. They should keep them up.
BROOKS: I wouldn't be surprised. Actually, during the time I was at Caltech, we started up a group called the Society of Professional Students, called it SOPS, and I think that's still here on campus in Thomas Lab. sops.caltech.edu. But it was—we called ourselves professional students because many of us students seemed to be in a career as a grad student. [laugh] SOPS organized daily donuts in the Thomas lounge and hosted weekly seminars by students and with only students allowed to attend. This let students practice presenting their research work without the stress of professors being present. SOPS also organized student/faculty social events, including a picnic and baseball game in the fall, and a banquet at the Athenaeum in the spring where the faculty and students would each put on a skit about life in Thomas.
ZIERLER: What year did you defend?
ZIERLER: Did you think about postdocs, or you were really eager for a job at that point?
BROOKS: No, I didn't see any immediate postdoc opportunities, and I already had my job at AeroVironment lined up by the time I did my thesis defense.
BROOKS: The commencement was on a Friday, and I was at work at AeroVironment the following Monday [laugh], so no time off. But the one thing that really threw me for a loop was maybe six months after I started at AeroVironment, my Caltech advisor Tom Hughes, who was now at Stanford, called me and said there was this opportunity for me to have a postdoc in Lausanne, Switzerland at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. There had been somebody from there that was a postdoc at Caltech when I was here, and he offered me a one-year postdoc position there. I thought long and hard about it, but I just worried that a year would go by fast, I didn't speak French, and then what am I going to do after a year? [laugh]
BROOKS: So, I turned it down in the end, which I'm glad I did because I got to do much more interesting things, starting at AeroVironment.
ZIERLER: Now at AeroVironment, did they create a position for you, or was there an open position you applied to?
BROOKS: No, they created the position. At first, I sent Paul MacCready a letter in the spring of '81 and—
ZIERLER: And is that your first direct contact with Paul?
BROOKS: No. I think Taras Kiceniuk took me with him to MacCready's house once a few years earlier when he was talking to MacCready hang-gliders or something. MacCready knew who I was, kind of. I think he probably knew who my father was because he may have been at Caltech at the same time as my father for a while. And he knew well who my grandfather was, Charles F. Brooks, who was a fairly well-known meteorologist who started the American Meteorological Society. Paul also kind of knew who I was through the human-powered vehicle events that he and I had both gone to. But he never replied to my letter. So, I finally tried a couple of times to reach him just by doing a cold call on the phone, and I eventually got through to him. He says, "OK. Well, why don't you come in to talk?" We arranged a date and time. He took me to lunch, and we had a pretty good conversation. So, they created a job for me. My first boss was Peter Lissaman, another Caltech grad. Paul along with Peter and Ivar Tombach, yet another Caltech grad, were the founders of AeroVironment.
ZIERLER: And when? How far back does it go?
BROOKS: It was in 1971. I found that out because not long after I started there, they had their 10-year anniversary party.
ZIERLER: What was your sense of the overall mission of the company 10 years in?
BROOKS: Well, they had three different groups that were only somewhat related. One group was selling a Doppler acoustic radar product for measuring wind speed aloft remotely. That was something that was developed at AeroVironment. Then there was another group that did environmental consulting and environmental studies with government funding. So, that was kind of a research arm. The third group was called AeroSciences, which is where I landed. It had some airplane-related projects, and it had some studies. It also had some wind energy projects. AeroSciences was into applied aerodynamics and energy engineering kinds of things. So, it was very flexible. I could do several very different things in that group.
ZIERLER: Did you have a sense that with the energy crisis from 1974, and the Carter administration's attempts to increase energy efficiency, were these relevant to what AeroVironment was doing, or the opportunities that it might've had at that point?
BROOKS: Not directly back in 1981. I think as we got closer to working on electric cars, yes, definitely. What I got involved with when I first started was called the Coriolis Project. It was a conceptual idea of putting a very large ducted turbine underwater in the ocean off the coast of Florida to capture Gulf Stream currents for electricity generation. It was to be this gigantic ducted turbine moored to the ocean bottom. The water would flow through it at a pretty low speed but it was so huge that it could actually generate a lot of power. AeroVironment had gotten a grant from the Solar Energy Research Institute, SERI, to do a study of the idea. Another project which I was brought into after I was there for a few months was a project to design a solar plane that would be able to fly for months at a time at high altitude.
BROOKS: It was a well-funded secret project, and when I joined it I had some good background. I took a class in college about aircraft performance analysis, and I had been a glider pilot for many years by then, so I knew quite a bit about flying and aircraft performance. Also some of the work I had done in my thesis about how to structure programs for simulating dynamic systems proved useful, like flying and circling, and the sun goes this way overhead during the day, so that all kind of fit into the kind of stuff I had learned about programming for simulating systems that were changing over time. I jumped into that project, and it became nearly my full time project for quite a while. Along the way, AeroVironment got the job to create an initial prototype airplane. I wrote the ground station display and data storage software, which ran on an IBM PC, which had just recently been introduced. I think it was probably the first ever application of a personal computer as an unmanned aircraft ground station. After that project, the pterodactyl came along, followed by the Sunraycer solar car, which is when things really got exciting.
ZIERLER: How big was AeroVironment when you first joined?
BROOKS: It was about 100 people or so. The business was struggling a bit and the number went down for a couple of years. Business conditions weren't too good then.
ZIERLER: Who were the customer base of the company at that point?
BROOKS: I think it was usually the government in one way or another, like environmental studies or doing airplane studies or that kind of thing, or maybe Air Pollution Control Districts and that kind of thing. Now, they're a completely different company. Now, they are primarily doing military drones. One interesting project they did a few years ago was assisting with the development of the Mars helicopter. Bart Hibbs used to talk about various ideas for Mars aircraft back when I was at the company.
ZIERLER: What was the first project you were involved in where you thought, "This is the career for me. I'm going to stay here for the long-term"?
BROOKS: Well, I think the solar car, and what that led to, because with the solar car, I really got to be in charge of it, and so it was my responsibility to make the whole thing a success. I was terrified of losing the race. [laugh] We'd never get any more work from GM if we lost the race.
ZIERLER: So, orient me in the chronology. When do you get started on this project? It's like '85, '86?
BROOKS: It was 1987. Yeah, the race was in November of '87, and we found out about the race about eight months before. So, by the time we actually got going on the project, we had—basically, we had four months to design and build the car from scratch.
ZIERLER: Who was the customer? Who were you building it for?
BROOKS: General Motors. Technically, it was for Hughes Aircraft Company, but Hughes was owned by General Motors.
ZIERLER: Did GM see this as somehow relevant to their business model, or this was just something cool that they wanted to support?
BROOKS: Well, I think both. But Hughes saw it as a great way to get more involved in GM, and get the connection stronger with GM. GM saw it, as I said, Bob Stempel saw it as a way to get young people interested in automotive engineering, and get a new group of students interested. So, they had pretty good reasons for wanting to do it, and it was a lot of money. The interesting thing was this would be the very first time the race was held. So no one entering the race knew how fast you had to be in order to win. So, we were just running scared the whole time to make our car the very best it could be. Given how much went into the whole effort it would have been very bad if we didn't win.
ZIERLER: By the time you slotted in on the project, what was already complete, and what did you need to work on from scratch?
BROOKS: I was there from the very beginning, so nothing was done at all. We started from scratch.
ZIERLER: All right. Let's break it down. Let's talk first about solar technology at this point. What's some of the engineering? What's some of the physics? What are your limitations that you know from the get-go with solar panels or solar cells?
BROOKS: Well, I guess there's two parts of it. One is that the efficiency of a solar cell converting sunlight to electricity is kind of a function of how much you pay for them [laugh], right, because you can get more expensive ones that are more efficient and give you more electric power.
ZIERLER: So, the solar cell technology was sufficient at that point where there were high-quality products to choose from?
BROOKS: At a price.
BROOKS: Yeah, and at a huge price.
BROOKS: So, then the next challenge was finding a way to use all of the available power as efficiently as possible because if you just hooked it up to a motor directly, the motor wouldn't always operate at the optimum voltage for the solar panel. There's a voltage for each solar panel that gives you the maximum power. There's a voltage versus current curve, and you need to be at the knee of the curve to get the maximum power out. So, Alan Cocconi had had some previous experience in this area a couple of years before, doing a project with TESLAco. TESLAco was a small local electronics company founded by Caltech professors David Middlebrook and Slobodan Ćuk.
BROOKS: [laugh] So, you've heard of him?
ZIERLER: Oh, yeah, Carver told me about Slobo.
BROOKS: OK. He was quite a guy.
ZIERLER: And he's still around. I'm going to try and talk to him too.
BROOKS: Alan worked for him for several years at TESLAco.
BROOKS: But TESLAco had gotten a project from NASA to make a prototype solar inverter for houses. This was like way back in the early days. Now these things are very common.
ZIERLER: Why was NASA involved?
BROOKS: I'm not sure. It may not have been NASA. Maybe it was DOE. It was some government program, and that's how Wally met Alan because Wally was at JPL and interested in this kind of stuff. Wally went over to TESLAco to see this work on solar inverters that they had done, and so that's where he met Alan. You have to have a circuit that actively sets the panel Voltage that maximizes power output. Alan figured out a very clever way to do that, and that knowledge was something that was critically important on the Sunraycer.
BROOKS: So, we actually had to configure the Sunraycer solar cells into 20 individual sub-panels that were each approximately aimed in the same direction. Then Alan built these very small and efficient peak power trackers that did the optimization of the voltage for each of the 20 sub panels. The peak power trackers were very high efficiency DC to DC converters which fed the sub panel's output into a common dc bus at the battery pack Voltage. Alan used MOSFET transistors, and was able to get very high efficiency in doing this power conversion, and it had 10 separate peak power trackers. Two sub panels that faced the same way were connected to each peak power tracker.
Prototyping the Sunraycer
ZIERLER: Wow. Just to get a sense of the technology, what we would have in high-end solar panels that we might put on a roof today, is it the same technology? How much more efficient or less than what you were dealing with in '86, '87?
BROOKS: Well, we started out with space-grade silicon cells back then. I forget what their efficiency was but they were quite good. They were the best silicon cells you could get. Then midway through our development of the Sunraycer, we got word that Hughes had decided that they wanted to make a spare car but without the solar panel. The idea was if the car suffered some significant damage we would have a spare as long as the solar panel was still functional. We had already made two of the Kevlar-Nomex body panels that the solar cells attached to. One was not fitted with the solar cells so we could do our first vehicle testing without risking the solar array if something went wrong in testing. When we heard about the second car, I think it was Alan that suggested that we populated that panel with cheap terrestrial grade solar cells to provide a backup in case the expensive gallium arsenide panel got wrecked. Hughes considered this idea but came back with a surprising response. They agreed with making a backup solar panel, but instead of using cheap solar cells, they wanted to use top of the line space-grade gallium arsenide cells. These cells are somewhere around 20 percent efficiency. The gallium panel would become our primary panel, and the silicon pane would be the backup. I think the gallium arsenide cells alone cost more than a million dollars. [laugh] For a month or so, Hughes was purchasing the world's full production of these cells, from two separate suppliers.
BROOKS: AeroVironment made another of the Nomex - Kevlar substrates for the array, essentially the upper back part of the car, and then we sent the panel over to Hughes where they had the high bay areas where they made satellites. So, all the satellite technicians assembled the solar arrays for the car, and they were really good about it, and they really liked the chance to get going and do things really fast because with satellites, you had to document every single cell to the nth degree, and it was very tedious and slow. But this one, it was like you have to get it done by next Tuesday. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Now, is there a battery—
BROOKS: Yes, there was.
ZIERLER: —in there?
ZIERLER: Is there an option not to have a battery—
ZIERLER: —for there to be direct power to the motor?
BROOKS: Well, yes, you could have the battery in there, and still have direct power to the motor without the battery being involved. And another part of Alan's driver controls was a little knob to control the amount of battery current. For example, if you wanted zero battery current, and just have real time solar power going straight to the motor, you could set battery current to zero, or if you wanted to charge the battery, you could turn the knob to regulate the charge current going to the battery, and what's left goes to the motor. Or you could do it the other way. You could discharge the battery. Let's say if we knew we had like five hours left in a race day, you could set the battery current to discharge over five hours, and it'd be depleted when you stop. So, it had that flexibility. Alan had kind of the sensibility of what kind of controls were needed, and what would be too much.
ZIERLER: Now, what were the limiting factors? What were the—what were you dealing with in terms of the specs of the car, its weight, its dimensions—
BROOKS: There was a dimension limit. It was two meters by six meters in the top view. So, that's what you couldn't go beyond. There wasn't much else.
ZIERLER: Any material you want?
ZIERLER: Any shape, size—?
BROOKS: Yeah. So, it was very easy to just say, OK, the car can't be bigger than this, and it had some safety rules. Like, you had to be able to get out of the car in a certain short amount of time, say, if it caught fire or something. But the rules were fairly well conceived for what the race was.
ZIERLER: Who were the competitors? Who else is doing this at the same time?
BROOKS: It was kind of a mishmash. Ford had an entry. But it was really just like a small, independent team from Ford of Australia. They made a decent car but ours was way faster. [laugh] Then a shampoo company made a car. They made it with a big ring wing over the top with the idea that it would catch the wind and act like a sail, which was allowed in the rules. You could do that.
ZIERLER: Did you think of that, consider that?
BROOKS: No. Well, we actually considered a removable vertical solar panel that you could stick up out of the car, and we tested it in the Caltech wind tunnel here. But, no, we wanted to just do it on pure solar, and not have the wind slow us down as much. We just wanted to be efficient.
ZIERLER: All right. So, let's move to the body of the car. What materials are you considering at this point? Is carbon fiber—is anybody thinking about carbon fiber at this point?
BROOKS: I think some of it—I think there was a Swiss team that probably used some carbon fiber in their car. No, we—here's the other thing. We had like four months to develop this car. We wanted to have two or three months to test the car before the race. We wanted to have thousands of miles on it before the race.
ZIERLER: So, there's an impetus for as much off the shelf as possible?
BROOKS: Well, no, almost nothing was off the shelf. The race was so different that almost everything was purpose-designed and built. We made an aluminum tube frame – welded aluminum tubing, and we iterated it in a couple of areas where weak points were found. We made some mistakes in the process but we fixed them before we raced. The body was a Nomex Kevlar honeycomb. It was a Kevlar cloth and a Nomex honeycomb.
ZIERLER: What is Nomex?
BROOKS: Nomex is like a honeycomb. If you looked at it, it would look like a honeycomb. But it comes in a sheet about a half-inch thick. It's just a big sheet of—and then if you look at it, you'd have all these thousands of honeycomb holes so you can make a very stiff, lightweight panel that's like a board but it's very light. This is like how a lot of satellite arrays are made, that kind of thing.
We got exotic on the canopy. The driver of course had to be able to see out through the canopy. But this was going to be in Australia in the summer, and it was going to be really hot. So, we were worried about the driver lasting for many hours, sitting in there with the sun beating down through a big canopy. So Bart Hibbs at AeroVironment, (Caltech BS 1977) had the idea to coat the canopy with gold, like a super thin layer so that you could see through it. [laugh] That would reflect all of the radiant heat coming from the sun. We did it, and it was great. We minimized stray light coming in from other places inside the vehicle. So, when you're inside the car, and looking out, it's like looking through some dark sunglasses with no reflections.
BROOKS: But from the outside, all you saw was reflections of people, and you couldn't see into the car at all because all you saw was your reflection. We took the canopy [laugh] to a precision mirror company in Burbank that sputtered the gold onto the canopy. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Now, what speeds are you looking at here, and how important are aerodynamics as a result?
BROOKS: They're hugely important. I think we averaged about 42 miles an hour—
BROOKS: —around the whole racecourse and—
ZIERLER: That's pretty fast.
BROOKS: Yeah, that's pretty fast. No, we designed it to be super slick. We did a solar-powered speed record later where we took the battery out of the car so it was just real-time solar powering the motor. I think we got it to like—I think it was about 49 miles an hour just on real-time solar power, so that was pretty good.
ZIERLER: Let's move onto the wheels. How many wheels?
BROOKS: Four, just a conventional layout. This gets us back to the Human Powered Vehicle Association. As we were developing this car, I used my Rolodex of people I had known from the human-powered vehicle world. So, we called Professor Chester Kyle down at Cal State, Long Beach, who had been very involved in the early human-powered vehicle races. He had developed bicycle fairings and wheels, and he was working on bicycles for Olympic athletes. During our first three-week feasibility studies, we brought him in as a consultant. We said, "We need you to design the wheels for this car, and they have to be about this size, and they have to be very robust but have low rolling friction, and we need to be able to change a wheel with a flat tire in 30 seconds. So, the wheel with the tire has to be a quick change. I gave him this challenge, and he came through. We took the prototype wheel that he made in those couple of weeks when we gave the pitch for the project to GM. So, yeah, it was like if you know who to call you can have a good team, and you know who can do the things that need to get done, it's amazing what you can do.
ZIERLER: How thick or thin are the tires like between a bicycle tire and a car tire?
BROOKS: They are bicycle tires but not the super skinny ones. They were kind of fatter tires, and kind of a rounded profile, and they were slick so they had no tread at all because we were just going on dry pavement for the most part.
ZIERLER: So, all in, how much—how heavy was the car? Like, a few hundred pounds?
BROOKS: It was just under 400 pounds. It had batteries in it. It had silver-zinc batteries, so that was a significant contribution to the weight. [laugh] Very expensive batteries.
ZIERLER: Lithium-ion is not yet ready?
BROOKS: No, that was not even in anyone's—
ZIERLER: And lead-acid was already outdated technology?
BROOKS: Oh, yeah, we had way higher energy density than lead-acid.
ZIERLER: What's the braking system?
BROOKS: It had disc brakes on the front wheels that were pretty much completely custom-made. We custom-made the discs and other parts of the braking system. But we rarely used those brakes. We had regenerative braking from the electric motor. The electric motor drove just the left rear wheel for simplicity. With one-wheel drive, it didn't need to have a differential. We just had the motor driving that one wheel, and that was fine to just propel us along the highway.
GM wanted the Sunraycer to use a motor with their new Magnequench magnet technology. They didn't have such a motor yet, so they started a development program to make one for the Sunraycer. This added a scheduling challenge for us. We needed to get the Sunraycer up and running before the Magnequench motor would be ready. Alan found an industrial servo motor from Moog that was about the right size, but it was for the wrong Voltage. Alan decided to rewind the motor with a different number of turns to get it to the desired Voltage. The first step was removing the existing winding which was not that easy. He still had access to the TeslaCo facility, so he went there one night to extract the windings. The new winding proved to be a challenge; the first new winding the at Alan put in didn't work, so Alan and Wally figured out what was wrong, and Alan wound the motor again. This time it worked and was immediately installed into the Sunraycer chassis.
When GM was ready to test their prototype Magnequench motor in early June, Alan and I flew to Detroit with Alan's prototype motor drive inverter. Alan and GM's motor designer Nady Boules got the motor and drive inverter hooked up together and installed on a small dynamometer. It was going well at first, with the motor working together with Alan's drive inverter. Then, while it was running, there was a sudden loud popping noise and the motor stopped. There had been a transistor failure in the motor drive inverter. Alan got it fixed and we got it running again. The test setup had a reading of the motor torque measured by the dynamometer. During a run, I noticed that the torque displayed had dropped to almost zero even though the inverter was still drawing significant power. Everything got shut down to investigate and it turned out that one of the motor magnets had come loose from the rotor and was spinning around scraping against the stator, pretty much eliminating the torque output from the motor, and in the process severely damaging the rotor and stator. Our testing was over for this trip – the motor would have to be rebuilt, this time with a fiberglass wrap around the magnets to keep them in place. One thing Alan didn't like about the Magnequench motor design was that there was no provision included for cooling. The explanation we got from Nady Boules is that they wanted the motor to appear to be small. A larger motor with a lot of cooling fins would have made it appear that the motor was inefficient and needed a lot of cooling! We insisted that they make a new housing with integral deep fins. It took them six weeks to redesign the motor with magnet retention and integral cooling fins.
ZIERLER: What is powered in the car besides the motor, like steering, braking?
BROOKS: No, it's—
ZIERLER: Everything else is manual?
BROOKS: It's all manual. We probably didn't even have a fan. But it had radio communications with the chase vehicle, and it had data telemetry.
ZIERLER: What do you need telemetry for?
BROOKS: So that the driver didn't have to be as fully trained in all the race strategies. We basically made a short-range telemetry system. During the race, we were following behind the Sunraycer with a motorhome. In the motorhome, we had a couple of Macintoshes. This was early in the days of the Macintosh. We had developed a nice graphic display showing things like the temperature of the solar panels, and the voltage and current of each of the panels, and the power, and the battery state of charge, and how much power was going where.
We had people sitting in the motorhome following the Sunraycer monitoring all this data, and we could advise the driver to speed up or slow down. The drivers, with the exception of me, were generally not that familiar with technical details of the car. I was one of the six drivers and I knew the car inside and out.
ZIERLER: Now, where are you doing testing? Are you riding it around town here, or how does that work?
BROOKS: We did some early testing at the Santa Anita Racetrack parking lot in Arcadia, with permission from people there, because there was some connection with AeroVironment.
Our initial testing was at the former Hughes Aircraft airport near LAX. This testing was of the chassis only, running on battery power. Alan and I and a couple of others from AeroVironment were there. I drove it first and it seemed to be working well. Next Alan got in and he got it going faster than I did. Then he suddenly slammed on the brakes!
It turned out he wasn't about to hit something. He had expressed previously his doubts about the strength of the welded aluminum suspension uprights. They looked too weak to him. To test his theory, he slammed on the brakes to put a big load on the front uprights (no brakes in the back). He was right! The uprights visibly were significantly bent. At first, I was miffed with Alan, but I soon came around to appreciate that he had surfaced this defect so soon when there was still plenty of time to fix it. New uprights were made from chrome moly steel and we didn't have any further issues with them.
Then we fairly quickly moved testing to the GM proving grounds in Mesa, Arizona, near Phoenix. The proving grounds had some very level tracks where we could do coast down tests. There was also a huge circular track, where you could just very smoothly go circling around in a big circle. That's what we used for our speed records. Then there was another track that we did most of our driving on, which was the durability track. It had this big long loop, and it had a cattle guard, and it had some rough pavement, and some—all the different kinds of pavement you could imagine. So, we just drove the Sunraycer for many days around this track because we knew that there were going to be cattle guards and things like that in Australia. So, we wanted to get lots of time on the track going over cattle guards, and stressing the car. So, we had probably 2,500 miles on the car when we took it to Australia.
Shortly before we left for Australia, the Sunraycer was taken to Detroit for a press event with Roger Smith at the GM Tech Center. The car was there for only a day. We arranged to test it in the middle of the night at GM's large automotive wind tunnel at the tech center. The test was uneventful and confirmed our drag estimates. It was fun to be able to stand in the tunnel as it was running!
ZIERLER: Now, what kind of intelligence did you have on what your competitors were doing? Did you have any idea if you were—
ZIERLER: —out ahead or—?
BROOKS: That actually probably was helpful to us because we were living in fear that—
BROOKS: — that we weren't going to measure up. GM arranged for some pictures of our car to be published maybe a month or two before the race. GM had given a long lead exclusive for Popular Science magazine, and gave them early access to the car. They took pictures, and it was on the front cover of the November Popular Science.
There was a long-lead press conference at Hughes Aircraft headquarters about two months before we left for Australia for the race. That early press conference was actually very useful to us because it forced us to get the car finished to the point where we could show it to the press well in advance of when we had to ship the car to Australia.
ZIERLER: What was the process like getting it to Australia?
BROOKS: We had two Sunraycers to get there. We had the one with the good silicon cell panel, and the one with the great gallium arsenide panel [laugh], solar panel. So, there were two. The silicon car was the backup car, basically. We made an enclosed trailer that could fit two Sunraycers, one above the other. Then we had it air-shipped to Australia in a Flying Tigers 747 freighter. [laugh] I was the one that got to fly with the cars on the freighter.
BROOKS: So, that was kind of an adventure.
ZIERLER: Direct flight from LA?
BROOKS: Well, no. It was from LA but the freighter was a really old 747 that didn't have enough range to go nonstop to Australia. We had to stop twice on the way. First we stopped in Hawaii, and once more in Fiji. [laugh] It's a long way!
ZIERLER: Not enough fuel?
BROOKS: Yeah, it's the fuel. Probably they load it full up with a lot of freight, and maybe they couldn't take a full load of fuel.
ZIERLER: And why Australia? Any insight as to why that was chosen as the race site?
BROOKS: Yeah, it's because that's where the race promoter was from. He was Australian.
BROOKS: So, that was just where he wanted to have the race.
ZIERLER: How much time did you have in Australia before race day?
BROOKS: Quite a bit. I think it was a little more than two weeks, and so we'd go out and practice, driving up and down the Stuart Highway near Darwin. We had enough time to get all our ducks in a row, and get everything prepared, including passing scrutineering, which included driving past a giant road train truck going in the opposite direction.
ZIERLER: What were the stakes for AeroVironment at this point? How important was it to win?
BROOKS: I considered it essential to win [laugh] because if GM lost after putting in all this money and effort in — because it was clear that GM put in way more money than anyone else, probably more than all else combined, would be my guess.
ZIERLER: And how much, at the end of the day? What did they put into the project?
BROOKS: It was multiple millions. I'm not sure exactly. I felt a lot of pressure that winning was the only outcome that was acceptable, and we were in it to win, and we had a car that could win. The thing is, before we got to Australia we didn't know if we were going to be competitive or whether it was going to be a nail-biter. Then when we got there we discovered that the Sunraycer was about 50% faster than the next fastest car. [laugh] But we didn't know that until we got there.
ZIERLER: What did the course look like once you initially surveyed it?
BROOKS: It's mostly just a straight line. [laugh] It's out in the outback, from north to south of Australia, right through the desert.
ZIERLER: How long?
BROOKS: It was about 1900 miles. We drove on a fixed schedule each day - something like 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. were the driving hours. So, when 5 p.m. came, you pulled off the road, and you camped right where you were. [laugh] Because you're in the outback, you just pull up and camp.
ZIERLER: Now, is it like a marathon? Are all the cars together in one spot or—?
BROOKS: No, they are together at the starting line. But, no, then they get all spread out after that.
ZIERLER: How many competitors in all were at the starting line?
BROOKS: I think there were over 20 - I'm not sure. Something like that. There were quite a few.
ZIERLER: And how many people were the driver over the course of the race?
BROOKS: In the Sunraycer, it was six.
ZIERLER: And you were one of them?
BROOKS: Yes. I got to drive two half-day shifts: on the first day, and on the fifth day.
ZIERLER: What is it like? We know what it's like to drive a car. We know what it's like to ride a bicycle. What does it feel like to drive the Sunraycer?
BROOKS: I would say pretty normal. It was relatively comfortable because it had a big hammock seat in there. I liked it because it had all this good instrumentation, and all these driving modes you could put it in, and you could talk on the radio to the chase car, so it was a lot of fun to drive it. [laugh]
ZIERLER: And it's silent, I assume.
BROOKS: Yes, from the outside, but to the driver it's not because there's a lot of banging and rattling of different things.
ZIERLER: How far into the race did you realize just how much better the Sunraycer was than the competition?
BROOKS: Before it started.
BROOKS: Oh, yeah. Just looking at what else was there, we knew right away.
ZIERLER: What were some of the other designs? What did other people come up with? Radically different than you or mostly the same?
BROOKS: The one from the shampoo company was pretty radically different because they were planning on using wind power as well as solar. So, they had put a lot of effort into a very unconventional design. They were kind of like new age hippies — they would gather together around their vehicle and do chants and things like that.
BROOKS: The Sunraycer was in the lead position at the start of the race, because it had the fastest qualifying speed, and at the race start, it just took off at like 45 miles an hour. The shampoo company car tried to keep up with the Sunraycer but they didn't realize that, at 45 miles an hour, the Sunraycer was hardly dipping into the battery at all. But they were sucking a lot of energy out of their battery trying to keep up, and pretty soon, they had to pull over because the battery was dead. [laugh] I'd recommend watching the film. It's about 30 minutes or so. I think I gave you a link to it, didn't I?
BROOKS: That film actually shows the whole thing, from when we were developing it, all the way through the race. The film was commissioned by General Motors or Hughes. I forgot which one.
ZIERLER: Alec, is your sense that there was one aspect of Sunraycer that made it so much better, or can you only look at it as the complete package for why it was so successful?
BROOKS: No, I think it's the complete package. Pretty much everything was done right, in spite of the very tight development schedule. There was not really a money limitation but there was a really bad time limitation, so we had to make some compromises along the way. Once, as we were getting ready for the final road testing and shipping it out, Hughes wanted to put on all these vibration sensors all over the car, and gather lots of data. They wanted to have a couple of days for all these measurements. Our AV engineer that was responsible for the chassis called me said: "We just can't do it. We have no time left." I had to call Hughes and tell them, "We're canceling the test. You can't come install your sensors." [laugh]
BROOKS: "Because," I said, "it's too late. If they did find something, we don't have time to fix it. We're not going to change anything now." [laugh] We were pretty confident, I think, that we had a good car, given that we had already put a lot of miles on it. We had a good team, for sure.
ZIERLER: Who was driving when Sunraycer completed the race?
BROOKS: That was John Harvey, who was an Australian race car driver that worked a lot with General Motors Holden's Australian arm. He was a very experienced race car driver so he drove for the race start and the finish.
ZIERLER: What kind of celebration was there for Sunraycer?
BROOKS: It was pretty good. The finish line was held at a winery near Adelaide, Australia, in the wine country. There were a lot of people there at the finish line. Then either that evening or the next evening—I can't remember—there was a celebratory banquet. Bob Stempel from GM and Mal Curry from Hughes had flown to Australia to celebrate with the team. So, it was pretty good, yeah. We had a good reaction.
GM took one of the Sunraycers over to Melbourne right after the race to display at an SAE conference that was underway. I went there as well and gave a talk about the Sunraycer, and then came back to Adelaide again.
When I flew back from Australia, I finally got back to my house fairly late in the evening. One of my housemates said, "You got several calls from GM because you need to fly to Washington DC tomorrow morning!" [laugh] GM had already flown one of the Sunraycers to Washington DC, and they were going to have a showing at the Capitol building for politicians to come by and see the Sunraycer. So, they wanted me and Molly Brennan, who was another driver, there with our racing suits. These racing suits were only for show; we didn't wear them in the race. In the car, we wore shorts and Sunraycer T-shirts. [laugh] So, I went to Washington, and got to meet a bunch of congressmen.
Then afterwards, when it was all over, because we had been working like crazy for seven months, and we thought, we built up all these capabilities so we should figure out what we are going to do next.
So, we came up with the idea of trying to take what we learned on the Sunraycer and apply it toward developing a prototype of a more practical electric car that would have great efficiency, and be fun to drive and would be a leap from prior electric cars. We had strong support for this from the Hughes executive, Howard Wilson, so with GM/Hughes funding we did a multi-month planning and feasibility study. We got Alan Cocconi working on some new electronics concepts. At the end of the feasibility study I wrote a proposal to General Motors to create this new prototype electric car that shows what you could do if you really took a clean start, and took lessons from Sunraycer. So, we got them to approve that, which was quite a process. Howard Wilson and I went on tour visiting many people all over GM that had been involved in GM's previous electric vehicle programs. We also made the rounds to many of GM's captive supplier divisions and labs, like Delco Remy, Delco Electronics, and GM Research Labs. We also went to see Ken Baker, who had been in charge of the GM Electrovette development in the 1970s (this was an electric Chevette, not Corvette!). Howard framed all of our visits as primarily asking for their advice on our plan to make a prototype of a modern EV. All these visits entailed a lot of travel and time, which paid off in the end when we submitted our final proposal to the GM senior management. They would send it around for comment to the people we had already talked to. Those people felt that they had been in the loop for the planning of the project and were generally supportive of moving ahead.
And it turned out that one of the people we met with, Jon Bereisa, was Alan Cocconi's supervisor from Alan's summer job at GM's Santa Barbara research center as part of his GM scholarship at Caltech.
ZIERLER: So, Sunraycer was proof of concept in a labor and a determination perspective; not that solar power technology would be viable in a mass-produced consumer car?
BROOKS: Right, but you could of course charge an electric car with solar electricity that's based on panels on the roof of your garage. It's not that cost-effective to put solar directly on your car. Now, some people are doing that on cars now, solar panels on the car, but that also means that you need to leave your car out in the sun all the time. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Didn't Fisker do that?
BROOKS: Yeah, I think they did. Some of these things are just for show, and they don't really provide a significant amount of energy. You'd be better of having the panels on your garage and—
ZIERLER: Storing the energy?
BROOKS: Put the car inside the garage and charge it with solar energy from the panels on the garage roof. Bob Stempel at GM wanted to really go out and tell the world all about their great win in Australia. And they wanted to focus on education a lot. So, they had one initiative that was taking the Sunraycer to schools. They'd get the school kids to come out to see the Sunraycer, and somebody would give a little talk about what the car was all about, and how it had won a race in Australia. GM took the Sunraycer all over the place, even to elementary schools and middle schools. Then there was another branch of that effort which was to universities. GM senior executives often coordinated with their alma maters for recruiting. It was like their special university. So, GM put one of the Sunraycers on tour to a whole bunch of universities, including with technical presentations. So, I was on the lecture circuit for a while – I can remember going to Duke, Stanford, Purdue, and probably others to give presentations about the Sunraycer. The Sunraycer would usually be there too to see firsthand. We took it to Sacramento. The Sunraycer had previously been registered in California to allow us to drive it on California roads. The license plate number was GM SUN88. For the Sacramento visit, GM arranged for a state proclamation that it was Sunraycer Day. They had a big ceremony at the steps of the Capitol building there. Willie Brown—you know Willie Brown?
BROOKS: Yeah. So, Willie Brown climbed into the Sunraycer, and posed for pictures, and he was talking about his Porsche. [laugh] Then we had Sunraycer Day in Los Angeles for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. We had a special ceremony there as well.
Another follow up to the race was that GM funded a course at Caltech about the technical details of the Sunraycer. The course was in the Aeronautics department and was called "Case Studies in Engineering". So, we all did lectures as part of this course. Those lecture notes were published by the SAE. You probably have a copy of it somewhere on campus. It's a big, thick volume, all about the technology that went into the Sunraycer, including a lot of details. Alan Cocconi gave detailed lectures on how he designed the electronics. So, it's quite a good record of all the technology that went into the Sunraycer. GM also decided to sponsor solar car racing at the collegiate level, and they called it GM Sunrayce USA. So, they started—the first inaugural race was started in Orlando Florida. They had all the teams, and they actually got quite a few colleges to participate even in the first race. They had it—like, it was going from Florida up to Michigan or something on public roads. They did that. It may still be going. I'm not sure. But it started getting funding from the SAE, the Society of Automotive Engineers and the DOE.
ZIERLER: Was there any appetite for a 2.0 after all that you'd learned?
BROOKS: In which way?
ZIERLER: In the Sunraycer, like—?
BROOKS: Well, they kept having the race in Australia. But I don't think there was any appetite for GM to go do it again because they had already set a high standard. I think in subsequent Solar Challenge races, Honda and others had cars faster than the Sunraycer. They had some very good teams later but the Sunraycer was first. Among all of these college teams that entered was Stanford. They competed in Australia many times in the future races, and they also participated in the GM's SunRayce events in the US. That formed the nucleus of skill sets that were in the very beginnings of Tesla Motors later. The time I spent at Tesla, it seemed like almost every technical person there was a Stanford alum that had worked on the Stanford solar cars. [laugh] J. B. Straubel was one of them. So, they really got a good start in EVs. When you look back and you trace it all back, a lot of it started with the Sunraycer. Solar cars are a terrific project for college students because of the diversity of skills needed and the need for effective teamwork.
Solar Race Victory and General Motors
ZIERLER: Given what a victory this was for GM, were Ford and Chrysler paying attention?
BROOKS: Well, not really. Ford had an entry in Australia but that was a local Ford group that had a low budget. So, they did a decent job, given the limitations. GM rightly moved solar car racing toward collegiate competitions. So, that really accomplished what Stempel was pushing for when he approved the Sunraycer project – to get more young people interested in automotive engineering. But in the case of Tesla, all that benefit went from Stanford straight to Tesla rather than to GM. [laugh]
ZIERLER: How did this change things at AeroVironment?
BROOKS: The solar car?
BROOKS: Well, I got a promotion out of it. [laugh] I ended up with a group of my own we called the Electromechanical Group. We had been working like crazy for seven months on the Sunraycer, and we thought, "we built up all these capabilities so we should figure out what we are going to do next."
So, we came up with the idea of trying to take what we learned on the Sunraycer and apply it toward developing a prototype of a more practical electric car that would have great efficiency, be fun to drive and would be a leap from prior electric cars. We had strong support for this idea from Howard Wilson at Hughes, so with some GM and Hughes funding we did a multi-month planning and feasibility study. We got Alan Cocconi working on some new electronics concepts. At the end of the feasibility study, I wrote a proposal to General Motors to create this new prototype electric car that shows what you could do if you really took a clean start and took lessons from Sunraycer.
So, we eventually got GM to approve the project, which was quite a process. Howard and I went on the road visiting many people all over GM that had been involved in GM's previous electric vehicle programs. We also made the rounds to many of GM's captive supplier divisions and labs, like Delco Remy, Delco Electronics, and GM Research Labs. We went to see Ken Baker, who had been in charge of the GM Electrovette development in the 1970s (this was an electric Chevette, not Corvette!). Howard framed all of our visits as primarily asking for advice on our plan to make a prototype of a modern EV. All these visits entailed a lot of travel and time, which really paid off in the end. We submitted our final proposal in July 1988 to GM senior management. I really objected to the vehicle rendering on the front cover as it was nothing like we had in mind – too far out. The rendering had been created by the GM Advanced Concepts Center in Newbury Park. Howard convinced me that we really needed to have that rendering included in order to avoid any conflicts on the way to getting the project approved and we didn't have to build the car to look like the rendering.
The GM executives would circulate our proposal around for comment to the people we had already talked to. Those people felt that they had been in the loop for the planning of the project and were generally supportive of moving ahead.
ZIERLER: So, Sunraycer was proof of concept in a labor and a determination perspective; not that solar power technology would be viable in a mass-produced consumer car?
BROOKS: Right, but you could of course charge an electric car with solar electricity that's based on panels on the roof of your garage. It's not that cost-effective to put solar directly on your car. Now, some people are doing that on cars now, solar panels on the car, but that also means that you need to leave your car out in the sun all the time. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Didn't Fisker do that?
BROOKS: Yeah, I think they did. Some of these things are just for show, and they don't really provide a significant amount of energy. You'd be better of having the panels on your garage and—
ZIERLER: Storing the energy?
BROOKS: Put the car inside the garage, and charge it with solar energy from the panels on the garage roof.
Howard Wilson's guidance and enthusiasm for the project helped immeasurably in getting General Motors to fund the development of our vision of the modern practical electric car. We had a working name for it as the Santana project, after the Santa Ana winds that blow the smog out of Southern California. Later when it was close to being announced to the public in late 1989, some senior GM managers picked an unfortunate name: the Impact. Johnny Carson made fun of it on his late night TV show.
Howard Wilson and I went to Detroit in late July of 1988 to present our proposal to many GM groups and executives. The project was approved the next month with Howard assigned to be the GM/Hughes overall manager for the project. We got going right away. GM's Advanced Concepts Center (ACC) was given the styling responsibility, but with the requirement that they meet our aerodynamic drag target drag coefficient of 0.19.
So, we had 16 months to develop the car from scratch. At the time, GM was in really bad shape financially. They were losing money like crazy, and we were fearful that they might cut off our funding or something. I think what happened is that Roger Smith, who was the chairman then, said something to the effect of: "OK, but you have to finish this car by the end of 1989, and we're going to put it in the Los Angeles Auto Show". That's in early January 1990. So, we had done a lot of our homework but when it came time, we had to actually build the car from scratch and test it to prove its performance, all in only 16 months.
ZIERLER: Who was the team?
BROOKS: It was centered at AeroVironment, and we had access to technical help and support from pretty much all of GM and all of GM's component groups. Alan and Wally were consultants to AV throughout the project. Alan worked pretty much full time on it. Taras Kiceniuk joined AeroVironment for a good part of the development, and another Caltech Alum, John Gord (BS ‘75), developed the vehicle computer and information display.
Back then, GM had all these affiliated companies like Delco Electronics and Delco-Remy and Harrison Radiator. They had all these component groups that were part of GM. But they eventually, I think, split off from GM. AeroVironment was in charge of building the car and was the central point, and that was my project. The project had the same amount of pressure or more than the Sunraycer because we had a deadline we had to meet and it had to work. [laugh] It was more complicated because it was going to be a car that had air conditioning and heating. We actually put a heat pump into it. That was probably the first automotive application of a heat pump. We developed the heat pump. We got the idea from these—we heard that in Japan, they compact low power heat pumps for residential use. These are called split ductless systems and are for both heating and cooling. So, we thought, well, that's what we need in the car. It could heat and cool the interior, and the battery pack when needed. Heat pumps can be very efficient. So, we actually had the Hughes Aircraft staff in Japan go and buy a split ductless system there in Japan, and send it over to us so we could look at it and see how it worked. [laugh] Then we ended up rebuilding it, using some of the parts. Taras reconfigured the heat pump we received to make it suitable for the vehicle application. It had heating and cooling. We could also run the heat pump during charging to cool or heat the battery pack as needed. I got a patent for the tapered shape of the battery tunnel to optimize heat transfer to keep near-uniform battery temperatures throughout the pack.
Alan repackaged the compressor, and made new custom variable-speed compressor drive electronics. So, we did a lot of things from scratch in that car. The drive motors were completely custom-made. Wally did the top-level design for the AC induction motors, one to drive each front wheel, and worked with Western Gear to have them fabricated. We also wanted the car to have built-in fast charging. We had a range of 100 miles, which back then was pretty good. One of Alan's innovations was to design the power electronics for the motor to also function as a battery charger when you're not driving. We had a 20 kilowatt charging capability by plugging in to a 100Amp 240V receptacle. That was good for 30-minute charge to about 70 percent full. You just had to plug it into a big AC power connection. So, it had a lot of fairly advanced features for a concept car. Almost everything in it really worked – unusual for a concept car. Now, the EV1 that came out later was patterned after that car. But the EV1 was sort of stretched in all dimensions because we had made the Impact kind of compact to keep the weight down. But GM had a very tall president at the time—
BROOKS: —Bob Stempel. He was really tall, and the GM president has to be able to fit inside the car. [laugh]
ZIERLER: What was the initial car called?
BROOKS: The one—the prototype?
BROOKS: It was called the Impact, GM Impact. It looked a lot more sleek than the final EV1 that came out.
I got to drive the Sunraycer in the Rose Parade a couple of months after we won the race. Then a few years later, I drove the Impact in the Rose Parade together with the production prototype of the EV1, as the lead cars. [laugh]. GM had massive power – if they wanted to lead the Rose Parade, they could make it happen [laugh] through all their connections.
ZIERLER: Was the prototype understood to be a novelty? Were the oil companies taking notice at this early juncture?
BROOKS: I don't think the oil companies were noticing it very much. I think GM was a little bit afraid of how much good publicity the Impact had gotten. We showed the car at the Los Angeles Auto Show, where it got a very good reception from the press. So, in response to the good reception of the Impact, GM convened a two-month task force to study the feasibility of making a production version of the Impact, and this study was going to be held in Detroit. I was invited to be on the study team so I spent a lot of time in Detroit in the winter of 1991. It was in January and February. [laugh] So, they had a group of about 20 people, and we'd meet every day, and try to put together the business case for making a production version. We ultimately came up with something that made it sound good enough, so they agreed to go forward with the production program. But it took until the end of 1996 to get to market - almost six years. I think their funding got cut back part way through. Now, I showed you the picture of Tom Everhart coming to my house with the prototype EV1, didn't I?
ZIERLER: No, I didn't see that.
BROOKS: Oh, I should show you. Paul MacCready and I sometimes had breakfast with Tom Everhart in the Athenaeum, and we would tell him about the work we were doing for GM. He was on the GM board of Directors then [laugh] so he was our sort of direct path to the GM board. In the summer of 1994, we had heard that GM had loaned Everhart a pre-production EV1 to drive. This was more than two years before the car was delivered to customers. I was having a summer pool party at my house for my AeroVironment Group, and I think Paul MacCready contacted Everhart to invite him to the party and to bring his EV1 to show everyone. We were thrilled when he arrived with the car. He drove it way down my driveway to be near the swimming pool.
ZIERLER: Alec, last question for today, what is your sense of why GM went to somebody like you (AV) with your background, and not somebody more from a traditional car engineering background? If the idea with the Impact, with EV1 was that this is going to be something eventually for consumers, it's going to be a regular car with a battery pack, what do you think GM's idea was in going to AeroVironment for this, and not doing it in Michigan internally?
BROOKS: Well, they did develop the production car in Michigan. It was the initial concept demonstrator car that was made by us with some GM help as needed and appropriate. We had good support from all of the GM parts divisions. We could say, "We need a heat exchanger this size," and they would make it for us. Or go to the glass company, and you say, "Can you make a windshield for us?" And they'd say, "Sure." [laugh] Also, I mean, it wasn't that GM originally came to us. It was we that went to GM with the idea of making a modern electric car. Also, we were on a roll. We had just done the Sunraycer. We wanted to keep our AV team together. Howard Wilson from Hughes was a key person in building support for AeroVironment doing the Impact demonstrator vehicle. Howard was a seasoned executive and knew his way around GM really well. Howard and I did a lot of traveling to present our ideas for a modern electric car project to groups at GM and at GM's captive supplier groups.
So we got GM to fund the development of the Impact, which was going to be a demonstrator car. After GM started their production program, I stayed closely connected with the production Impact engineering team. I participated in a few of their design reviews. GM's Delco Remy also got AeroVironment to help by making test equipment for their battery testing program. So, we had a fairly steady business with GM.
Not too long after the production engineering program got going at GM, I wrote up a proposal to GM that they would support AeroVironment with a few million dollars a year for several years so that we could be free to go and try things that we thought would be useful to GM. They actually bought off on that idea, and so I had a group at AeroVironment that was doing all kinds of interesting things, and showing them to GM. They owned the results. So, that was good. As part of that we did some work on plug-in hybrids at AeroVironment and made some prototypes. We did a lot of stuff, so it was a good partnership. Then along the way, GM invested in AeroVironment. They bought shares. So, it was a pretty good relationship overall.
ZIERLER: Well, given how important all of this research is, next time we'll pick up on some of the engineering questions that went into the prototype.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Wednesday, December 8th, 2021. I'm delighted to be back with Dr. Alec Brooks. Alec, once again, great to be with you.
BROOKS: Great to be with you.
ZIERLER: Alec, today, we're going to pick up on the transition from the Sunraycer success to when GM really committed to the Impact concept EV. So, just as a matter of transition, how fast was it, or how apparent was it to you, going from success in Australia to the guys at GM saying, "We're going to go full in on an electric concept car"? Take me through the events that led from one event to the other.
The GM EV From Concept to Classic
BROOKS: OK. Let me make sure I remember the timing. It took a while. First of all, GM committed to a lot of the things that they were trying to do with the Sunraycer, which was to get young people interested in automotive engineering and things like that. So, they really followed through on that. Well, I think I mentioned last time, they took the Sunraycer all around to show it, and I went to many of the places to speak about the Sunraycer. We went to a lot of universities, and gave lectures there, about how the Sunraycer was built, and about the race, and tried to get people excited about that. We also went around to various local and state government events. We were commended by the Los Angeles County board of supervisors, who declared it "Sunraycer day" in Los Angeles County. Along the way GM decided that they would start up a US solar car race for college teams, and they got some connection with the Society of Automotive Engineers, which has student chapters. And, so, they put a lot of money and effort into this, and made it a real recurring event. They had a few GM people assigned full-time to manage this program. The first race was in the summer of 1990 —it started from Florida near the Daytona Speedway, and it headed north, and finished at the GM technical center in Warren, Michigan. AeroVironment was tasked that year to help develop the rules and provide the logistics for the race. I was involved as a reviewer of all of the college teams' proposal submissions. That race went on for many years, later under DOE sponsorship. A variant of the race is still going on. That's certainly how the Stanford Solar Car Team got their start, and they were a very powerful team, and they competed in Australia in the Australian race too. A lot of Stanford grads that eventually went to work for Tesla came out of that program, so they were very experienced on how you build something, and make sure it actually works.
The Sunraycer and racing it in Australia was a huge effort at AeroVironment, and the effort just kept increasing, increasing up until the end. Then we won the race, and then, boom, it was done. [laugh] But we didn't want to just drop the whole thing. So, we thought about what would be a logical next step. I think it was sort of a common consensus that we ought to build a prototype of what we thought would be a modern electric car, using some of the lessons learned from the Sunraycer, and using modern power electronics, which Alan Cocconi was certainly at the leading edge of that kind of thing, and AC motors. Wally Rippel had long been advocating for AC induction motors. With some help from Howard Wilson from Hughes, we convinced General Motors to fund a feasibility study and proposal for a new electric vehicle project for AeroVironment to take on.
ZIERLER: Now, what was Howard Wilson's connection? Was he the go-between from AeroVironment to GM?
BROOKS: Howard Wilson was the senior executive at Hughes that was in charge of the Hughes relationship with GM, which had recently purchased Hughes. Howard was also tasked by GM to keep track of all the new work that AeroVironment was doing for GM. He approved projects and he would sometimes have to go get approval from GM. He sort of was the middleman, and he was very supportive of what we were doing. He was an enthusiast. With his help, we got funding to do a study and a plan for what we would do on this modern electric car.
ZIERLER: The funding came from GM?
BROOKS: Yes, but I think it came from GM through Hughes.
ZIERLER: Do you know if GM had a basic science kind of laboratory? Where would the funds have come for something like this?
BROOKS: Well, yes—there was certainly the GM Research Labs in Warren, Michigan, and we interacted with them a fair amount, and they had been behind some of the much earlier electric vehicle work. But they were not that interested. They were a little bit skeptical of what we wanted to do.
But I don't know where—it was probably a small enough amount of money in the big picture for the study part that they just gave Howard Wilson permission to use it out of his budget. He probably had some discretionary budget where he could fund that.
So, we sort of kept going for about 8 months from when the Sunraycer won until we got approval to do the car project.
ZIERLER: Alec, what was your sense in the pitch to GM, even if it's only at this early stage fairly noncommittal, just to fund a feasibility study? So, if you think about all of the ways that GM might be excited about this, there's the PR aspect, you know, where they want to get a new generation of kids interested in automotive. Maybe in the 1980s, not too much fantastic stuff was happening in American auto manufacturing? So, there may be the PR aspect. Then, of course, there's the bigger, faster, stronger gearhead aspect. Maybe there's something exciting about EVs and performance. Then, of course, there's the environment and resource aspect in terms of getting off of fossil fuels, and having cleaner air. Among all of those things, where was GM in its initial interest in looking at this as a concept?
BROOKS: I think the initial interest probably came from very high up in GM, from Bob Stempel and Roger Smith. They may have thought it was cool working with Paul MacCready. It just gives them some of Paul's, you know—
ZIERLER: And he had the cachet at that point?
BROOKS: Yes, and Howard Wilson from Hughes was a huge booster for the team that AeroVironment had put together. He was really excited about all this stuff. He was near retirement but he really saw the potential for this. He was frequently going back to GM and saying, "OK, we're just going to do this study. I have some budget in my discretionary budget. I'll just pay for it out of that, and they can just say, OK, it's no big deal." Howard and I did a lot of the legwork. What Howard wanted to do was take a tour with me around all of the different parts of GM to grease the skids, to ask the people we met what they learned from GM's previous electric vehicle work. We tried to get their ideas and guidance on what to watch out for. So, by the time we were done, we had talked to a pretty large group of people from many different parts of GM. The people we talked to all felt like they had been brought into this study. It wasn't just an outside group going off on their own, and doing a study like that. By the way, as a side story, back in the 1970s, JPL and Caltech did a study called Should we have a new engine? That was funded by—I think it was General Motors or Ford. But it was supposed to be like a big scientific study of all the technologies for cars and all these things. So, my father, who was the head of EQL at the time, Environmental Quality Lab, sort of inherited the responsibility for the project. The project was already underway when he became the director of EQL, but it was done largely by JPL. But it came out in this big, thick volume the size of a phone book. I could show it to you.
ZIERLER: Oh, yeah.
BROOKS: You probably have a copy of it here at Caltech. But the technologies they were looking at then were much older than what we were using in the '80s. That was in the '70s.
ZIERLER: But they were looking to move away from internal combustion also?
BROOKS: No, it wasn't that. It was just like a study in looking at all of the challenges and potential gains from all kinds of technologies, like Stirling engines and electric cars and hybrid cars and gas turbines, and just like the whole—everything you could possibly imagine. So, that was something that Caltech was involved with through JPL mostly.
Howard and I went all around mostly in the Midwest. Back then, GM was structured to have these component groups, like Delco Electronics, Delco-Remy, and Harrison Radiator. They were all these subsidiary component divisions. We went to just about all of them that would have had anything to do with electric vehicles. We went and visited each one of them for a day. We did a lot of traveling around in the Midwest. That helped a lot, I think. It got people to see that we were trying to get their view, and not just come and tell them what they should do. Howard and I wrote up the proposal and presented it to GM Management. After some delays, we got approval for the project, but it was kind of a close call as GM was not doing very well back then. They were losing a lot of money.
ZIERLER: Yeah, yeah.
BROOKS: I forgot the amount of money but it was in the several millions of dollars range for one car, which to GM, I think, they spent that kind of money on a lot of concept cars. But we were going to make a demonstrator car that actually completely worked. A lot of concept cars are what they called "pushmobiles". They don't actually have a power train, or they don't actually run. But we wanted to make something that had the weight and the range and the performance, and had air conditioning, heating, you know, the whole nine yards. It had to have all the components. It wouldn't be a fully production-ready car but it would be relatively representative of what could be achieved in production.
ZIERLER: Alec, what was relevant with Sunraycer in the initial concept? What was the technology that might be transferable to the Impact concept?
BROOKS: I would say not too much; probably the AC motor drive electronics using MOSFET transistors or IGBTs. I think Alan used MOSFETs at the time. That wasn't a direct carry over but the ideas were quite similar. But it had to be scaled up to a much higher power level for the car because the Sunraycer was only a few horsepower and the Impact had 114 horsepower.
ZIERLER: What about the battery?
BROOKS: No, completely different.
BROOKS: Because for the Sunraycer, the cost of the battery didn't matter.
ZIERLER: Because money was no object for the race?
BROOKS: Well, also, that it didn't make sense to have a very big battery in the Sunraycer, and so we had silver-zinc batteries, which are expensive and have a fairly short cycle life. So, it's completely inappropriate for a prototype production car. We proposed – and this was with a lot of input from Wally — we proposed a custom-built recombinant lead-acid battery, which Wally will tell you all about. [laugh] There's one interesting story about that battery. The plan was to put the battery pack in a tunnel between the two seats. The car was going to be a two-seater. The tunnel was like a big drive shaft tunnel on a regular car, but in this case, it was just going to be full of batteries. Wally had done some calculations on the dimensions of each battery module that would have the requisite amount of energy capacity. GM's Delco-Remy division was going to build the battery modules. After some initial design to the requirements, they came back and told us the battery pack capacity would be about 10 percent less than we needed because there wasn't going to be enough room in the tunnel. They said Wally's original estimate for the size of a battery module with the required capacity was too small by about ten percent. So, we had to—we pushed Delco-Remy a little bit and got them to try to squeeze everything down, because maybe they were assuming use of standard sized lugs on the top of each battery module. So, they did some redesign and used custom low-profile lugs on the top of the battery modules. We pushed and pulled, and we got it to fit in. At that point the shape and size of the vehicle body had been finalized, including how much room there was for the battery pack. But we were going to use a new kind of lead-acid batteries called recombinant. You couldn't add water to it. It didn't have little caps you could remove. It was completely sealed. We had about 14kWh of battery capacity. I think the battery pack was a little under 900 pounds and the complete car was about 2200 pounds.
ZIERLER: Alec, to clarify, the seed money for the study, was that sufficient to actually build a prototype?
BROOKS: No. No, that was sufficient to do the rounds to meet with people at GM and to write the proposal. I think during that time Alan Cocconi did some prototyping work on the core part of the power electronics that would be used if we got approval to proceed. He wanted to get started and prove out that the weight and the efficiency that was used in the study was achievable. So, he was doing that.
ZIERLER: So, the proposal was purely theoretical?
BROOKS: Yes, except for Alan's work, I would say. The proposal was for making one functional prototype car. It was not intended to be a prototype of a production car, but it was intended to be a prototype of the size and weight of a car that would be producible. So, we tried to design it to the crash requirements that you would have. Like, the battery pack in the center tunnel – we had structural tie-downs for all the individual battery modules. We wanted the battery pack to be undamaged in a front barrier crash, basically, the whole pack of batteries. We actually did static testing of the strength of the batteries together with the pack hardware, and we pulled on it gradually to see if it could stand the expected stress of a crash. We did a lot of that kind of stuff. Then we made the body— it was a unibody car, which means that a lot of the outer panels of the car are part of the body structure. It's not like a frame that you attach a body on top of. The structure of the car was in the body, which we envisioned being made of aluminum to save weight. But we didn't think we could make our demonstrator car out of aluminum because it would've been hard for us to fabricate, especially given the tight schedule. So, we made the body out of fiberglass, and we made the fiberglass about the same weight per unit area as aluminum would be in a production version of the car. We tried to make the body weight as close as possible to what an aluminum production car body would have weighed. The one thing that changed when the production version, the EV1, came along was that the EV1 dimensions were significantly larger than the original Impact demonstrator car that we built, which was a very compact car. Kind of like if you imagine a Mazda Miata or something like that, it was tightly packaged. For me, I was about the tallest person that could sit in it comfortably. But later GM human factors people said, "Well, the production version has got to be able to fit everybody," and especially because of Bob Stempel, who was the president by then, he's very, very tall. So the car kind of stretched out in height and width.
BROOKS: So, anyway, we did that. We did the study, and we went, and we had to go around and pitch our proposed project plan to a lot of different groups.
ZIERLER: Different groups within GM?
BROOKS: Within GM, yeah. But because we had done a lot of legwork, we had developed some support for what we were doing. We were going to be using a lot of input from GM in the course of building this prototype as well, and GM suppliers. The GM suppliers were extremely helpful – we wanted a low rolling resistance tire, but we wanted it to be the exact size customized for our car. We went to Goodyear with GM backing us up, and said, "Can you make us some tires of this size with this rubber compound?" They said, "Yeah, OK, sure, no problem. No charge." [laugh] It was also like that for the windshield. The windshield had to be a custom shape, so the glass company that sells windshields to GM said, "Yeah, OK, just tell us what you want, and we'll make it for you." So, the suppliers to GM were all very accommodating, and provided all kinds of custom parts for the car.
ZIERLER: Alec, to get a sense of the stakes for AeroVironment at this point, are all eggs in this basket? Is there anything else? Like, if this doesn't work out, does the company fold, or what are the circumstances there?
BROOKS: AeroVironment was changing rapidly during that time. There was a group in Monrovia, where I was based, and then there was another group in Simi Valley that was doing mostly airplane projects. While we were doing the Impact prototype, the airplane projects were kind of dying out, and in Simi Valley they got down to a very small group. So, our group doing the electric car work was probably the biggest part of the company for around six months, so it was really helping to hold the company all together for a while. But later the airplane stuff took off, and the vehicle work became a lower portion of AV's overall business, but it was good steady work for GM for several years. Around the time when we started doing that study, I got a promotion from Paul MacCready. I had been in a separate group called AeroSciences, reporting to Peter Lissaman, one of AeroVironment's founders and another Caltech alum. But because the electric vehicle work was taking off, Paul MacCready promoted me to be at the same level as Peter Lissaman, with my own group, and reporting straight to Paul. A lot was happening, and so there was a lot of pressure to keep the work going or to expand the kind of work that we were doing. So, certainly, getting the electric car ready was a huge undertaking. But with the Sunraycer was—we had a hard deadline – the start of a race, which really helped us focus on getting it done. Well, it turned out that the Impact ended up having a hard deadline too, because Roger Smith, the chairman, approved the funding with the provision that it was to be ready in time for the Los Angeles Auto Show in 1990, which started on January 3rd, 1990. [laugh]
ZIERLER: And where are we now? How much time does this give you?
BROOKS: We had finished the first part of the car project - the feasibility, and part of the construction. Then we had—if I could get another tranche of money to finish the car. GM was not in good shape financially then, and so they said, "OK, you can have only this much money, and it's got to be ready for the Auto Show." But that was good in a way because it really gave us—like the Sunraycer—it gave us a really hard deadline.
ZIERLER: Sure, sure.
BROOKS: So, it really got us moving, and we progressed very, very fast.
ZIERLER: Alec, to clarify, when you're pitching to different divisions within GM, are you pitching the proposal or are you pitching the prototype at that point? Is the car already built?
BROOKS: No, we're pitching the project to build the car.
ZIERLER: OK. What are you hearing from the different divisions? What are some of the concerns? Were they excited?
BROOKS: I think we generally had pretty positive feedback. We went through a lot of the component divisions, and a lot of them would be involved. Like Delco-Remy, we wanted them to build custom batteries; not just some off-the-shelf batteries. We wanted them to be purpose-built for our prototype. Almost everything was purpose-built. We hardly had any stock parts. So, yeah, it got really tight near the end, and [laugh] you can ask Wally and Alan about this. But I remember Wally and Alan telling me a few months before the auto show that there was no way the car could be finished in time. [laugh] I told them, "Well, that's not acceptable – we have to get it finished!" I feared that the project would have been canceled if it dragged on without a hard deadline.
BROOKS: So, everyone really pulled together as we neared the deadline, and we got it done.
ZIERLER: What ultimately proved to be the approval or the winning message that got GM on board?
BROOKS: Well, GM on board for the—?
ZIERLER: To approve the proposal to build the car?
BROOKS: Oh, well, [pause] I don't know if there was any single thing. I think the legwork that Howard Wilson and I did to go see a lot of different groups all over GM paid off. So if some managers that we presented our proposal to went and talked to those groups that we visited, they would hear: "Well, they came and talked to us, and asked for our advice." I think we developed a lot of internal support that way. We valued all of their input, and they actually did a fair amount of work in some areas. AeroVironment was in charge of the project. We had an area of stress early on when we got started with the project to design and build the car. We had some stressful interactions with the GM design staff. "Design staff," – that means styling. The design staff facility we worked with was called the "Advanced Concepts Center" and was in Newbury Park, California. AeroVironment's concept for the car was it would be a two-seat, sporty car. So, that much was given.
But we at AeroVironment had a particular sense of how the car ought to look. The GM design center out in Newbury Park, when they do initial designs, they have these like really fanciful drawings that are not to scale, and they are just trying to get the feel of the car. When I first went out there to look at what they were doing, it just was completely inappropriate in my opinion, as to what was needed. We got into this kind of a wrestling match between styling and what an efficient vehicle would look like, and so Howard Wilson from Hughes gave AeroVironment a go-ahead for us to design the shape of the car on our own as a secret side project [laugh] that we didn't tell them about. We actually tested one of those designs in the wind tunnel here at Caltech.
Then at some point, Don Runkle from GM, who was in the chain of command, got wind of this rebel car design, and flew out to California, and got everyone in the same room, and said, "We're not going to have two cars. You guys have to figure it out. You have to work together." He told the Advanced Concepts Center, "You've got to work together with them to meet their technical requirements." And he told us that we have to let them design the shape of the car, and that if we want to continue [laugh] this project [laugh]—he read the Riot Act. So, that got us going on the same path again. But I sent you our proposal to GM, right? For political reasons, the front cover of the proposal had a rendering of one of the far-out designs from the Advanced Concepts Center.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Yeah.
ZIERLER: It kind of looks like a Batmobile.
BROOKS: Yeah, and it had a big, bulbous rear end.
BROOKS: It did not look streamlined at all. And we had told them all of our technical requirements, and they just didn't want to do that. I had written a lot of that proposal, and I was really against putting that picture on the cover. Howard Wilson told me, because he was much older, and he knew the way things worked, he says, "Just don't make waves. Let them put that on the cover [laugh] and we'll get it fixed later." [laugh] So we did, and that worked.
ZIERLER: Alec, when the approval came in, what was the approval exactly for? Was it access to funds? Did you have a set amount that you could spend within the divisions at GM? How did that work? What did the green light look like?
BROOKS: I think the funding was—it was probably an approval for Hughes to spend money at AeroVironment, and maybe Hughes might get some additional funding out of GM to do this, and to be managed out of Hughes, through Howard Wilson. Then there was also some funding through GM to Delco-Remy, especially on the battery side. They were developing a new recombinant lead acid battery for us. So, I don't know how that got funded, but the batteries appeared on time. We didn't pay for them through AV. GM management probably told their supplier groups to support this project, because we were able to get custom components out of Harrison Radiator, and Delco Electronics made a special radio with an aluminum chassis instead of steel, you know, just all kinds of stuff like that.
ZIERLER: All right, so orient me in the narrative. When chronologically is the Impact concept car a go, and when does AeroVironment really start working on it?
BROOKS: Building the car was approved in late July 1988, about nine months after the race in Australia. In the summer of 1989, we got the final approval and the directive to get it done in time for the Los Angeles auto show in early January 1990. We'd already worked on it but it hadn't been fully funded through completion. Now GM was saying, "OK, you've got six months to get it done and get it to the Auto Show." [laugh] So, that was good, and it sort of lit a fire under everything, and forced us to work really fast.
ZIERLER: And the decision to make this a sporty, two-seat concept, how much of that is simply about efficiency, and how much of it is about that's the sexiest option?
BROOKS: I think it was something that our team was probably the most interested in – make it a fun car to drive. I think making it a two-seater also made the car simpler and smaller so it would probably be less work to make the prototype. But it would demonstrate the basic concept. It was what we wanted. It's like what car would you like to drive? We wanted to make something that would look attractive and make people want to drive it.
ZIERLER: Contra Wally and Alan's misgivings about not hitting the deadline—
BROOKS: The timeline, yeah.
ZIERLER: —what happened? What made it work?
BROOKS: I said we don't have any choice - we have to get it done on time.
BROOKS: [laugh] Because to me, if the choice was that we default, and GM pulls the plug. [laugh] I was truly worried about that possibility. They said—
ZIERLER: But this is like, what, 12-hour days, working on weekends, round the clock? What makes the difference here?
BROOKS: We were working very hard near the end, and everybody pulled together. One thing we as a team really wanted to do was to get the car done soon enough so that we could take it to the GM proving grounds in Arizona and test it for acceleration, driving range and handling and that kind of thing. To us, this car was more than just what they call a "pushmobile" concept car. It was to be a car that actually ran, and if we said it would go 120 miles, we would have actually driven it 120 miles on a charge, and the acceleration was going to be—back at the time, 0 to 60 in eight seconds was pretty fast, and so we said we want to test that, show that it actually does that. So this was a car that would really work. If we said it weighed 2,200 pounds, that's really what it weighed. There was no hedging—see, I think GM sometimes hedged that. They would say, "Here's a car, and here's the weight." But that was the proposed weight if it was going to be a production car. [laugh] Sometimes the concept cars came out really heavy because they weren't designed to be light, or there was no emphasis—
ZIERLER: But how stripped out was it in terms of did it have a radio—
ZIERLER: It had everything that you would expect, all the creature comforts of a regular car?
BROOKS: Yeah, we had a radio, but we asked Delco Electronics to package it in a lightweight aluminum enclosure, and they did it. They made a custom enclosure. We had heating and air conditioning too. It was functional.
We got Harrison Radiator to build us some custom heat exchangers. Then — I think it was a first in the automotive world, we had an electric heat pump for heating and air conditioning. We got the idea from hearing about these new split ductless heat pump air conditioning and heating systems that were then popular in Japan. So we asked somebody at Hughes in Japan to go buy one of these heat pumps and ship it to us. [laugh] So, we just got this split ductless system from Japan, and we looked at how it worked and how the plumbing was done. It had a refrigerant reversing valve in there. So, we essentially rebuilt that unit for automotive use. We took it completely apart, and we put in some GM Harrison heat exchangers, and we took apart the compressor and the motor, and we put in a permanent magnet motor rather than the induction motor it came with because the induction motor ran off the AC power that you have at a house. But we were going to run it off of a DC battery. So, we put a brushless DC motor in there, and I managed to convince Alan Cocconi to build a little motor drive inverter just for this air conditioner. [laugh] He was very reluctant at first but he eventually gave in, and he did it quickly, and it worked very well, and it could drive the motor at variable speeds. Taras Kiceniuk was on our team then, and he figured out how to plumb the whole thing together and squeeze it into the limited available space, and make it work as a system.
ZIERLER: What testing did you do in extreme heat or cold in terms of battery performance?
BROOKS: We didn't do any of that testing before the car was introduced at the Los Angeles auto show in January 1990. Complete battery testing was done later in the course of developing the production Impact (later renamed to EV1). But before we introduced the car, we spent about four or five days at the GM proving grounds in Mesa, Arizona. It no longer exists, but they had a very good proving grounds out there. So over a short period of time in December 1989, we did acceleration tests, range tests, and handling on wet pavement.
We did a lot of testing, coast down testing, and we got a chance to use the heat pump heating and air conditioning, both for the cabin and battery cooling during recharging. The car was quite functional. I got a chance to try the heating function a few months later when we were doing a morning photo shoot in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. the day after Roger Smith's Earth Day announcement that GM would produce the Impact. It was super cold that morning, so I ran the heat pump in the morning as I drove the Impact to the photo shoot. I actually drove the car [laugh] in downtown D.C. the day before. That's a whole other story.
ZIERLER: Was it street legal?
BROOKS: No. [laugh]
BROOKS: No. See, Roger Smith was going to make his big announcement on Earth Day that GM was going to make a production version of the Impact.
ZIERLER: Earth Day was '92?
BROOKS: No, Earth Day 1990. In the first few months of 1990, GM had put together a team to look at the feasibility of doing a production version of the Impact. I was on that team and was the only outside member, and so I spent a lot of my time back in Detroit in the winter of 1990. As a result of that study, GM decided to go ahead with developing the production version of the Impact, and to have GM Chairman Roger Smith announce it at his speech at the National Press Club in DC on Earth Day.
The morning before Smith's Earth Day announcement, GM had set up an exclusive photo opp of the Impact for USA Today over in Rosslyn, Virginia, across the river. Roger Smith was going to make his speech at around noon. The photo opp was running behind schedule in Rosslyn, and it was getting really late. We had this big trailer and truck there to take the Impact to the Press Club. It got so late that I said we have run out of time. It takes too long to put in the trailer. I'll just drive it over to the Press Club. [laugh]
BROOKS: This car had no real plates. I mean, it had a plate that said "GM Impact" or something like that.
BROOKS: I got the truck with the trailer to follow me so nobody was going to rear end me. But I drove it right through downtown Washington, past the Ellipse and the White House and—
BROOKS: —I pulled it up on the sidewalk at the entrance to the National Press Club. [laugh] Then the press got pictures of Roger Smith with the car before his speech.
ZIERLER: Alec, what did it feel like to drive the car in light of your experience now with the Chevy Bolt or a Nissan Leaf? Was it different? Was it basically the same? Was it even better in some respects?
BROOKS: Given that it was a prototype, the only way it was better is that it used less energy per mile than the Leaf and the Bolt.
ZIERLER: Even though that's lithium-ion in the latter cars?
BROOKS: Yeah, but they have more energy. But I'm talking about Watt hours per mile. The Impact essentially did 100 miles of range on 13 kilowatt hours of battery. So, that's 130 Watt hours a mile. My Bolt is pretty good, and it uses about 200 watt hours a mile. The Impact had good performance, and it was fun to drive.
ZIERLER: And this is mostly about, what, its lightness?
BROOKS: Yeah, it was very light for what it did. It weighed the same as a Mazda Miata – 2,200 pounds – which is very light for any car. It didn't drive with great refinement because there wasn't any time available for refinement. One feature that Alan came up with was driver-adjustable regenerative braking upon lifting the accelerator pedal. With regeneration, when you slow down, the motor operates with the torque in the reverse direction, and generates electricity, which is fed back to the battery.
ZIERLER: So, this is like single-pedal driving?
BROOKS: Yes, single-pedal driving. So, Alan set it up with a knob for the driver to dial in the amount of regenerative braking when lifting off the accelerator pedal. If you wanted to coast when you lifted your foot you could turn the knob to make regeneration be off. Variable regeneration control was very controversial later when the GM EV1 was being developed. I don't think it had adjustable regeneration. It did have two settings. But the Chevy Bolt has adjustable regeneration. It has several different levels of regeneration that you can select, and you can still get it on the accelerator pedal, or if you don't want it on the accelerator pedal, you can have it all coming on the brake pedal. But, certainly, the Leaf and the Bolt are far more refined. They have better gears, and their motors are quieter, and everything is—but that's been many years.
ZIERLER: Yeah, I mean, relative to its contemporaries, it might not have been so scaled back.
BROOKS: Yeah. So, the Impact was really to show what you could accomplish. I think just recently, Tesla was the first to put in heat pump air conditioning and heating, and that was only like last year, I think. We had a heat pump in the Impact back in 1989, more than 30 years ago.. So, I am pretty sure that was the first heat pump in a car. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Were you at the Los Angeles Auto Show?
BROOKS: Yes, quite a bit.
ZIERLER: What was the reception like?
BROOKS: It was great. Well, the one thing that—because it was GM, and GM had a lot of floor space at the Auto Show because they had a lot of car divisions. But GM was able to pretty much at the last minute tell Oldsmobile that this GM electric car was going to be in their prime spot [laugh] at the Auto Show, which was right by the entrance door. It was a prime location. Everyone that came to the Auto Show walked right past the Impact. [laugh] The other humorous thing, when we were out at the proving grounds doing all of our testing—this was like two weeks before the Auto Show. Just in time testing was compressed but we did all our testing to confirm the basic performance specs before the show. GM sent a film crew out to the proving grounds, to film us doing the testing. Then they wove that actual testing footage together with sort of a group of actors that were playing the Impact's engineers and managers, sitting around a conference table pretending to be us – me, Alan, Wally, and others on our development team. [laugh]
BROOKS: The film included actual scenes of the car being tested, and those had me and Alan and Taras and others from AeroVironment. But the film crew dressed us up in lab coats with stopwatches. [laugh]
BROOKS: I spent some time at the Auto Show because they wanted to have people involved in the car take turns to be there to tell people about it. They had video playing in the booth. It's a five-minute video, so we would just hear all the same music and corny dialog repeating again and again. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Was your sense, given the prime real estate that the Impact took up at the Auto Show, that GM was really going to fully embrace this, and was going to make it part of its identity?
BROOKS: Well, no, I don't think they were ready to fully embrace it at that point. They did see that there was a lot of positive response. They got a lot of good press. The Impact was formally announced to the press at the Hughes headquarters in Playa del Rey a few days before the auto show. I was there. Hughes had a very nice headquarters there. They had a little auditorium for this kind of event. Roger Smith read a speech to announce the Impact, which was a surprise –It had been kept secret until then. I edited his speech in advance to make sure he got his facts reasonably correct. After Smith finished with his speech and answering questions, the plan was for him to go down to the basement parking lot and get into the Impact and drive it out to the front of the building where the press would be waiting. I would then give rides to members of the press. I said in advance, "But don't you think we should have him come drive the car in advance in the basement so that he can sort of get a feel for it?"
BROOKS: [laugh] And they said, no, he didn't need to. And I said, "I really think we should [laugh] show it to him and let him drive it."
BROOKS: [laugh] So, he said OK. So, we went down to the parking garage, and I got in beside him, and he started driving it. There was this little squeak, squeak, squeak noise coming out of one wheel. [laugh] He said, "You'll have that fixed, won't you, by [laugh] the time I come out later?" And I said, "Yes of course" not knowing what was wrong.
ZIERLER: Just a loose lug nut?
BROOKS: No, at first we couldn't figure it out. But we had members of our AeroVironment team there just for something like this going wrong. So, we jacked up the car, and found the squeak in one of the front wheels. We had somebody from the GM Advanced Concepts Center, Newbury Park, there. He saw fairly quickly that, for whatever reason, the wheel was scraping on the edge of the brake caliper, and making the squeak. It was fairly noticeable. So, he whips out his pocket knife, and starts shaving off the edge of the aluminum brake caliper—
BROOKS: —and just like shaves off enough to give it clearance. [laugh]
BROOKS: So real-time repairs under pressure.
BROOKS: So, it all worked out fine. Afer Smith drove out and posed for pictures with the car, I gave rides to reporters from the automotive press, and so they got a direct feeling for what fast acceleration in an EV felt like, so that was good. I also gave a ride to Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles at the time. He was really tall. [laugh] But he fit in the car just barely.
ZIERLER: Was anybody talking at that point? I'm thinking, you know, in the late 1980s is really the first time that people started to get concerned about carbon emissions and climate change. You have James Hansen from NASA testifying before Congress in 1988. So, circa 1990 when the concept car comes out, is anybody talking about this as a solution to carbon emissions, or is that still too early in the game?
BROOKS: That might have been early. I know they were talking about overall pollutant emissions, and carbon may have been some of that. There's probably some recognition back then that you can use wind and solar to make electricity. But in '87, wind and solar hadn't developed nearly as much as it has now. But there were wind farms in California by then.
Our vision for the Impact was that this was a car people would want to drive; that it actually drives better than a conventional car. I think that is even more true today. I mean, the Chevy Bolt that I drive now, I think it's much better to drive than a gas car. Just the accelerator response is so fast and so quiet, you can kind of go faster and be stealthy about it. [laugh]
ZIERLER: All right. So, the Auto Show's a big hit. What happens next?
BROOKS: Well, GM immediately pulled together a study group to look at the feasibility of putting this car into production.
ZIERLER: Because it's just one. It's the one car.
BROOKS: Yeah, it's one car, yeah.
BROOKS: At around that time they also produced a semi-technical video all about the Impact to show to employees at the GM Tech Center in Warren. They recorded an interview with me to include in the video.
I was on the study group as the only outside person and—
ZIERLER: Who else was on it?
BROOKS: I can't remember all the people right now. But there were people that represented the fields that would be involved in putting a new car program together. John Williams was the leader of the group. Ken Baker was consulted as he was the GM executive who'd previously led a program to make an electric Chevette. That program was canceled before production started.
ZIERLER: It's probably for the better. [laugh]
BROOKS: Yeah. Ken Baker eventually became a board member of AeroVironment after GM invested in AeroVironment by buying stock. So, Ken Baker was a director for a while. I can't remember all the names of people in the study group right now. A lot of them were from the GM component divisions, such as Delco Remy and Delco Electronics. I was the only outsider. But it was a pretty broad group, and they were all generally enthusiastic about the mission of the group.
ZIERLER: Now, given how refined at least in those days that the concept car was, how valuable was that in facilitating scaling up to a production car?
BROOKS: Probably not too much, other than the general concept of a two-seat, sporty car with good acceleration survived. They didn't try to completely change what people thought of as the Impact to be something completely different.
ZIERLER: What about the design, the shape, the sportiness?
BROOKS: It pretty much stayed intact, except that it grew in size. It actually just—if you just took the Impact that we made, and multiplied it by about 1.2 in all directions, that's kind of what came out of it in the end.
BROOKS: The informal reason was because Bob Stempel was very tall and wouldn't fit in the Impact.
BROOKS: [laugh] You know, as I—
ZIERLER: This isn't about regulation, safety, crash tests, those kinds of things?
BROOKS: It could've been too. But we tried—we weren't car designers but we tried to consider those things. But I think—just for example, I used to own a Miata which was very small like the original Impact. Later, I owned a GM Fiero, which was the GM two-seat sports car.
ZIERLER: The Pontiac Fiero, right?
BROOKS: Pontiac, yeah, Pontiac Fiero. They had one—a couple of model years, where they were better than they first were. The Fiero was probably 700 pounds heavier than the Miata. It was just—I think it's just the mindset of like cars are this big, and the weight just grows. If I make it a little bit bigger, everything has to get bigger, and the weight just grows very fast. You have to put in a bigger engine.
ZIERLER: All right. So, the car's a little bigger. What else has to change? What about the components?
BROOKS: They change completely. A lot of the same ideas were used. Some were rejected. The one innovation that Alan had, which was pretty impressive for the day, and still is, is what he called reductive charging. When you charge an electric car, you have to have something that converts AC power from the grid to DC power for the battery. If you do it at your house, like I charge my Bolt, the AC power goes into the Bolt, and then there's a battery charger electronics box inside the Bolt that converts the AC power into the DC power for the battery, and it's the battery charger, basically. The charger is limited to about seven kilowatts in my Bolt. There is a pathway if you take it to a public charging station that has fast chargers where the fast charger feeds high-current DC right to the car bypassing the internal charger. But what Alan developed that was pretty clever was to utilize the 100-kilowatt power electronics that were already in the car for the drive motor and to use the same electronics as the charger. By reconfiguring how the connections are made of the different electronic poles, you can turn that into a very high-power charger. The charger for my Bolt can draw about 7.7kW of 240V AC power. With the Impact, we had a 20kW fast charger built into the car. The way it worked was that the grid AC power came into the motor drive controller, and the motor drive controller had a mode that would turn that AC power into DC power to go to the battery. It could plug in to a 100 Amp AC circuit, and charge the battery at around 20 kilowatts. We had a 13 kilowatt hour battery. So, we had a very powerful onboard charger at a very small weight penalty. That approach didn't catch on at GM, unfortunately. They thought there might be difficulties with getting it certified through the UL and that kind of thing. AC Propulsion kept that approach, and their tzero sports car had this kind of charging system. So, it had a very fast charger. Then later with the tzero, with minor changes, we were able to have the car feed power back out onto the grid too, or it could feed power out to a power outlet to power up external devices. So, you could for example, plug one car into another car if you wanted to charge one car from the other, or if you wanted to power your house if your grid electricity is down. It could do that too. It's very interesting, and it has some design requirements on the motor, and how you hook all this stuff up.
But Alan will tell you a lot more about it. But he thinks that that's the way to go because if you look at the—if you follow electric vehicles now, they keep talking about faster and faster charging, and they're trying to get it down to where you can go to like a gas station, and in five minutes, fill up your battery. I saw an article the other day that they're working on a connector at the SAE for one-megawatt charging of your EV. [laugh] That's a couple of minutes, so it's like pumping a tank of gas. Technology is moving so fast, we may get there. But if you get most new houses to have charging stations or high power AC circuits, I think you can fairly quickly get quite a large amount of infrastructure out there for people to charge EVs at home and to provide backup power.
ZIERLER: Alec, what infrastructure was GM envisioning for the EV1? Was there going to be a network of chargers, or is everybody charging at home? How was this thought of at that point?
BROOKS: Well, the EV1 was the first of its kind as an electric car for a major automaker. So, the idea was that the people that lease these cars—they're only for lease—would install a charger at home.
ZIERLER: And you had to. And a 110V wall outlet is not going to do it?
BROOKS: No, but GM did provide a 120V AC low power emergency charger with the EV1. It plugged into a standard 120V outlet. But for regular charging you had to have a 240-volt circuit, and it was about 7 kilowatts. So, in Southern California GM had worked out some deal with Southern California Edison where Edison would come out to your house and install a complete separate 240V circuit with a special EV rate. So, I got that back then when I had my EV1. I wanted a separate meter because I wanted to be able to measure the EV charging electricity independently from my house just from a curiosity point of view to see how much energy the car used. I still have a dedicated SCE circuit just for my EV charging.
ZIERLER: So, if you're not charging at your house, are there any other options, or that's it at that point?
BROOKS: Well, with the EV1, there were chargers at Saturn dealers and—
ZIERLER: Oh, yeah, why Saturn of all the divisions? What was the connection to Saturn? Was it like the new forward-thinking division of GM kind of thing?
BROOKS: Maybe, yeah. it just didn't fit anywhere else, probably. I really don't know. [laugh] The Saturn dealer where I got my car was in Monrovia. But unfortunately for GM, Hughes proposed a complicated inductive coupling for charging the EV1. It looked like a paddle. It was thin, and a big, round thing. You inserted this paddle into a slot in the nose of the EV1. They had pictures of little children plugging the paddle into the car, implying that it was totally safe, because there's no exposed electrical contacts. So, they had this very nonstandard GM-only charging system that was developed by Hughes Aircraft, and they had to use very high-frequency AC in this paddle to transfer the charge power to the vehicle. That proprietary charging system was actually, I think, partly what did in the car because there was at least one EV1 fire during charging. It wasn't very well reported but it was after the car had been out for a few years. I think it was later determined that it was a failure of an electrical component in this power converter box in the car that converted the very high frequency AC power to DC for charging the battery pack. So, they recalled all the EV1s, and they had to redo that whole thing. Then they finally just seemed to lose interest, and they pulled all the cars back. My car got pulled back before the lease was over.
ZIERLER: Yeah. What decision-making or what is your awareness of why GM did not offer the cars for sale? What was it forecasting with the lease-only program?
BROOKS: I think they really didn't yet have a long-term view that this is going to be their future direction, and they thought it was a big experiment, and they wanted to have the possibility of pulling all the cars back, and not supporting them anymore, which is what they did.
ZIERLER: But why the need to pull them all back? Why not just release them into the wild? What's the liability for GM?
BROOKS: Well, they have to be safe. If there was a fire risk they'd have to fix it.
ZIERLER: Sure. But isn't there a regulatory hurdle that GM would have to cross in order to just get the cars into consumer driveways to begin with where they had that seal of safety or some protection from liability once they made the demonstration?
BROOKS: No, it's—that's a good question. I think it's probably unknown territory because now you have this car that's being plugged into the power grid, and how do you—does it have to be UL-listed in order to get insurance? How does it all work? The way it works now is you have these charging stations, and those don't have to be UL-listed. But it's a good idea if you're—as a buyer, to get one that's UL-listed because it's gone through some level of vetting, and so it's probably built OK. But then the charging electronics in the car I don't think are required to be UL-listed. Maybe they should be because that's where the power is converted for home charging.
ZIERLER: Now, where's AeroVironment in all of this as the EV1 is coming online? How closely is it connected to all parts of the production process?
BROOKS: We had a fairly good connection with GM for several years during the development of the EV1. What happened was after the Auto Show and the Impact prototype was done, that part of our project was done. We were working crazy hours to get the car finished in time for the auto show, and then suddenly it's all done.
ZIERLER: It's like the Sunraycer all over again.
BROOKS: Yeah. So, I wanted to keep the AeroVironment team doing this kind of work. I found it very satisfying and I wanted—and we had this big team of people, and wanted to keep them together. So, I talked with Paul MacCready, and we came up with the idea of trying to get a contract with General Motors to have them provide AeroVironment with a minimum amount annual funding to AeroVironment to just look at interesting things that we thought would help the future of General Motors. We wrote up a proposal to GM and which I think may now be in the MacCready papers at Caltech.
BROOKS: I wrote most of the proposal. In essence it was: "Look, we like working with you but we need some kind of steady support—it can't be totally up and down."
ZIERLER: What about just getting bought out by GM? Was that ever floated?
BROOKS: No. No, I don't think they would've wanted that because AeroVironment had a lot of other business areas unrelated to cars. That would've been kind of a mess. Also, there was something to be gained by having to be a separate company. They agreed to provide funding for three years at about 3 million a year, which back then was a lot of money. It allowed my group, called the Electromechanical Group, to lease a facility dedicated to this work. AV by then had moved to a more of a corporate office building on Huntington Drive, and in the move my group's office and lab space had to shrink down a lot. But then when we got this long-term contract from GM we moved my group back to the building we used to have on Myrtle Street, and we built up a much bigger lab space where we had dynamometers, a battery test lab, machine shop, composites shop, vehicle lifts and all these different capabilities, so we could build more prototype vehicles. The other thing at the time—Wally can tell you some of these stories about this – there was something we called the Wally Box [laugh] where Wally had figured out how we could use one of the Impact motor drive inverters that Alan had created and instead of connecting it up to an electric motor, we could connect it up to three-phase grid power and also connect it to a vehicle battery pack in the lab. The battery connects up to this box the same way it did in the car. This setup allowed us to run a battery pack over a repeatable driving cycle of current vs. time. The system consisted of a replica of Alan's original GM Impact motor drive electronics box (there were two separate inverters in the box because the Impact had one motor for each wheel) plus a secondary electronics box with some control electronics for syncing to the AC grid power and a transformer to get the right AC voltage for the grid connection. This was early in the development program for what would come to be called the EV-1 (at the time it was still called Impact). By this time Hughes Aircraft was building replicas of Alan's motor drive inverter box. So to support GM's battery pack cycling test program at Delco Remy, AV would build the secondary electronics box and Hughes would supply the replica motor drive inverters. The AV electronics box came to be known as the "Wally Box" as Wally had designed the circuitry in it. We would get calls from GM or Delco Remy saying something like: "we need five more Wally Boxes". We made something like 30 or 40 Wally Boxes total. The original Wally Box together with original Impact drive inverter came to a sad ending when the drive inverter caught on fire during use. An AV test engineer was nearby and shut off the power to the system and used a fire extinguisher to put out the fire but the drive inverter and Wally Box were destroyed.
AeroVironment then saw a market for an integrated battery cycler product that could produce bidirectional dc power according to a defined profile. GM had an immediate need for such a system for validation testing of Impact battery packs at Delco Remy. We sold quite a few systems to them which we called ABC150, which stood for: "advanced battery cycler 150kW". The product line later expanded to other versions with higher current and voltage. These became the core products of a new business unit at AeroVironment. This business unit was eventually sold off and these products are still available from Webasto Power Cycling and Test Systems.
Also along the way, GM made an equity investment in AeroVironment and got a seat on AeroVironment's board. Initially the GM board member was Ken Baker, who was in charge of the Impact EV production program, and later it was Don Runkle who had looked after AV's Impact prototype vehicle development.
Our multi-year development contract with GM allowed AV to initiate some projects on our own that we thought could be of interest to GM. We wanted to try out some plug-in hybrid ideas, so we made a series-hybrid version of the Chevy Lumina minivan. Do you remember that vehicle? It was a very pointy-nosed minivan. It's probably before your time. [laugh]
ZIERLER: The one that looked like a Dust Buster?
BROOKS: —a Dust Buster, yeah. We wanted to do a prototype plug-in hybrid for that vehicle, so we took out the original gasoline engine, and put in a variant of the Impact electric drivetrain. We sourced a small Honda four-stroke outboard motor engine, and we worked with Delco Electronics to add fuel injection and a catalytic converter to the engine. We custom-made a permanent magnet brushless alternator that was connected to the engine to generate DC power to feed to the vehicle's power bus. The drive to the wheels was entirely electric powered from a combination of the batteries and the generator. It was a plug-in hybrid. We made that prototype for them. We later tried to make a prototype of a plug-in hybrid with a little gas turbine engine that we borrowed from Allison Gas Turbine, which was another GM division. We tried to get this little gas turbine running and got it started once before we dropped that idea. Then we started designing our own little gas turbine engine and got to the point of fabricating most of the hardware. [laugh] We had all these little projects going on that GM sort of tolerated, and they just said we're this sort of far-out research lab for them. We did a lot of interesting things. Another thing we kind of pioneered, I think, was battery management systems. Essentially, in an EV you have a pack of 20 or 30 12-Volt batteries, and you want to know what the health of each battery is, or you want them to charge up equally. You don't want one to charge before the others. So, Wally originally came up with a rudimentary analog battery management system that through some passive components tried to help keep the battery module voltages all the same by bypassing some of the charging current through a resistor on batteries where the voltage was too high. Then a few years after that, we got the idea for doing a digital system where you had a tiny little circuit board with a processor on each 12-volt battery, and they were all networked together. So, that gave us detailed information digitally on each battery. Later at AC Propulsion Alan developed a more capable battery management system. It consisted of a little module for each 12-volt battery that could independently add charge into each 12V battery, so that if one battery was looking low compared to the rest, the system could direct additional charge into that one battery, and it was digitally networked.
ZIERLER: This is '91 when AC Propulsion starts?
BROOKS: Yeah. So, even before AC Propulsion started, I think, soon after the EV1 program got going, Alan said, "OK, I'm going to go off on my own and do my own thing." It turned out he was going to build his own electric car in his garage, in his driveway—
BROOKS: —and he chose a Honda - the little two-seat Honda CRX, very close in configuration to the GM Impact.
BROOKS: So, he bought a new CRX and ripped the engine and related stuff out of it. He knew how to make the electronics because he basically could make something very similar or probably improved from what we had done in the Impact. He wanted to make the motor as well, but in order to make the motor, he needed to have the iron laminations. The motor is made with lots and lots of thin iron laminations. He was having trouble finding laminations that were suitable for an EV motor. So, what happened is General Motors got wind that Alan was off on his own, and needed these laminations. [laugh]. Well, then the other part of it was that—I don't know if I mentioned this before. But Alan had his way paid through Caltech by GM—or some of it. I think he was a GM Scholar or something.
BROOKS: So, he had met—he had done summers at I think Santa Barbara Research Labs of Delco Electronics, and he met this GM technical manager named Jon Bereisa, who was his boss in those summers. Bereisa ended up on the EV1 development team and he really liked and respected Alan. Anyway, Jon Bereisa got wind that Alan was trying to build a motor for his own electric car, and Ken Baker, the head of the EV1 team, wanted to find a way to get Alan to participate in the GM EV1 development program in some way. They wanted Alan to work exclusively for GM, or they would like to set him up in his home shop, and all of his inventions could be accessed by GM, and that kind of thing. As a goodwill gesture to get started, Baker and Bereisa told Alan they would give him motor laminations so he could build his own motor because GM had appropriate ones similar to the ones used in the EV1. So [laugh], it led to this standoff in Alan's driveway. I was there. I went there with Ken Baker, the head of the GM program, Jon Bereisa and Howard Wilson. We all got in the car, and in the trunk were motor laminations ready to hand over to Alan if a deal could be reached. We went over to his house in San Dimas. We met with Alan in his driveway. [laugh] They said, "We want you to come help GM and we'll set you up, and pay for your whole lab and everything. Alan would essentially have to join General Motors to get the laminations-- not as an employee probably, but GM probably had some kind of exclusive IP deal in mind. They said, "We have the laminations in our trunk. If you'll agree to that today, we'll leave them with you." But Alan turned them down.
BROOKS: So, we all left. These were a couple of senior executives at GM, and we all just left.
ZIERLER: Alec, as the EV1 was out there in the world, were you following how it was received among ordinary drivers? Were you aware of the strong devotees, even the cult following to the EV1?
BROOKS: Oh, yeah. Well, I was one of them. I got mine on the first day they were being delivered. I got the first one at the Saturn dealer in Monrovia where they had a party for the first delivery.
There was an EV1 Club, and there were club meetings at the Southern California Edison headquarters once a month or something like that, and people would drive their EV1s there, and there'd be some talks and some picnics and things. It was a whole following, and people really liked their cars, even though the cars were not very reliable early on. They had a lot of problems. But when I had a problem in my car, I could take it over to the Saturn dealer, and they would see me coming, and they'd just say, "OK, you can take that red one over there (an EV1 loaner car). Here's the key." It was very quick and easy to get repairs because they knew that [laugh] they wanted to be different. That was good for a while. But if you had to take your car in a lot it got old. I think I took my car in something like 20 or 30 times for different repairs. [laugh] But as long as they gave me a loaner EV1, that was OK.
The range on the EV1 was not that good.
ZIERLER: It was worse than the Impact?
BROOKS: Yeah, I think it was a little worse than the Impact, until they got the nickel-metal-hydride version later. The lead-acid version also had slower charging than the Impact because it had a bigger battery pack, but the charge power was less. We could charge the Impact at 20 kilowatts, and the EV1 would charge at 6 kilowatts.
ZIERLER: When did you first get the sense that GM was going to—forgive the pun—pull the plug on this?
AC Propulsion and a New EV Approach
BROOKS: [pause] I think it was probably when I was at AC Propulsion. By then the car had been recalled once or twice. One was serious - for a fire risk in the charging system. I took my car to the dealer and they kept it for quite a while. They didn't have an immediate fix, and I think GM just kind of lost the will to fix it right.
BROOKS: —also, the batteries really weren't good enough to get the long range. I will mention that AC Propulsion was sort of instrumental in showing what lithium batteries could do in an EV. They weren't the first. The first was the Nissan Altra EV. It was kind of like a station wagon that had lithium batteries but it was never made in any volume and was not sold. There were short-term leases for some demo programs in LA. But Nissan said the batteries were way too expensive, so they kind of lost interest.
Then sort of what happened kind of all at the same time—I don't know who came first. But when I was at AC Propulsion, Alan was also doing some of his electric airplane work, and he was interested in doing long duration. Alan and I briefly considered using his solar airplane prototype together with lithium batteries to do a demo flight over a coffee plantation in Hawaii. This was something that AeroVironment was trying to do with their large pathfinder solar airplane. Alan and I figured that Alan's much smaller plane could do the same mission at a far lower cost. NASA Dryden was sponsoring the AeroVironment effort, and Alan and I had some initial conversations with Dryden to propose a more practical alternative.
Laptop computers at that point had started using lithium battery cells. Alan was interested in using these cells in his airplane. I helped him order some cells directly from a battery manufacturer, and I guess because we were a business, we could order cells that weren't generally available to the public. So, we got probably 30 cells or something just so we could look at them, and Alan could make up a pack for his plane. We were actually looking at his plane as another option—area of expansion for AC Propulsion, his electric airplane. [laugh] The only thing I remember doing is we positioned a group of these batteries together on a conference table, kind of like a module, and took a picture of it, and I showed that picture at a CARB presentation (California Air Resources Board), not too long after that. A pack of these cells put together could be a pretty good source of power for an electric car, and you'd have pretty high performance and good range. I think around the same time, J. B. Straubel from Stanford and later from Tesla was looking at putting large amounts of lithium cells into solar cars. I don't know who came up with the idea of using lithium ion batteries in EVs, but not long after I left AC Propulsion Martin Eberhard engaged AC Propulsion to fit a tzero with a lithium pack based on these cells
Around that time I left AC Propulsion because the salaries of the shareholder employees had been cut down to almost nothing because they were running low on money. So, I went back to AeroVironment.
ZIERLER: When exactly did you make the switch to AC Propulsion? This would've been right around the Impact-EV1 transition?
BROOKS: It was at the beginning of 1999. I got my EV1 in 1996.
ZIERLER: We'll return back to that. But last question for today, you're emphasizing the classic question, who killed the electric car? You're citing more the internal technical problems to the EV1; not so much the opposition from the Dealers Association or the fossil fuel industry. What I'm hearing from you is that had there been fewer problems, GM would've had minimally more appetite to keep the program going.
BROOKS: Maybe. I think, certainly, all the problems gave them a good reason to cancel it.
ZIERLER: So, just as a fun counterfactual, the way that you talked about comparing the Impact and how that was scaled up into the EV1, pure thought experiment: if somehow you were able to carbon-copy, cookie-cutter the Impact concept, you just took the car that you made, right, and you just made exactly that car that was the lease program that GM released out there, would we have seen the same problems that we saw with the EV1?
BROOKS: Well, we wouldn't have had an inductive charge coupling that was recalled due to fires. So that problem would not have been there. But it would not have been feasible for GM to make and sell carbon copies of the Impact car that we made as a demonstrator car. But the inductive charging problems are likely what finally killed the EV1, that put the nail in the coffin.
But I think it takes a commitment and a vision that, finally, the automakers are getting; that you're going to put billions and billions of dollars into this new kind of car and the whole supply chain, and you're going to convert your whole fleet over. I think GM is doing pretty well now in EVs. I haven't driven a lot of the other EVs out there. The Chevy Bolt is very energy-efficient and is very space-efficient. For the size of the car, it has a lot of interior volume. It has a couple hundred horsepower in a 3,500-pound car. It's pretty peppy. With the new battery pack installed as a result of the recall, I can get 300 miles on a charge.
BROOKS: But it's not [laugh]—Tesla has built their brand on you can beat anyone in a drag race.
ZIERLER: Right. [laugh]
BROOKS: But the funny thing is most of the Tesla drivers I see don't drive any faster than I do in the Bolt. If anything, I drive a little faster than the average Tesla driver. I don't drive that fast, but I tend to accelerate reasonably quickly.
ZIERLER: Well, we'll pick up next time on your move over to AC Propulsion, and the importance of lithium-ion batteries at that point.
BROOKS: OK, great.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Thursday, December 16th, 2021. Once again, I'm so happy to be back with Dr. Alec Brooks. Alec, as always, thank you for joining me.
BROOKS: Glad to be here.
ZIERLER: Alec, today, we're going to pick up on the story of you joining AC Propulsion, and the larger story of the development of lithium-ion batteries. So, maybe it's a chicken and the egg kind of question. Where is the chronology of lithium-ion batteries as a viable technology, a much better technology than lead-acid? Where is that relative to your decision-making to join AC Propulsion?
BROOKS: Lithium batteries weren't on the horizon for cars at all when I joined AC Propulsion. AC Propulsion was developing a sports car called the tzero which had pretty high performance for the day, like 0 to 60 in four seconds. It had lead-acid batteries that were relatively inexpensive. So, you could envision actually being able to afford to build a car like that if you did it in some volume. Alan had started the development of his own electric cars after he stopped working with AeroVironment after the Impact was finished.
ZIERLER: And this is 1992, to orient the chronology?
BROOKS: No, I joined AC Propulsion in early 1999. The Impact car was at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. That's about the time when Alan stopped actively working primarily with AeroVironment, and went off on his own. He started designing his own electric car because he didn't like the way that the production EV1 development was headed. That was very, very early on in that program too. It's not when it was already out, but how the early development was going. He thought he could make a better car, and so he bought a Honda CR-X. He bought a new one, and then pulled out the engine, and started doing it basically at his house. I think I told you the story last time about how he needed motor laminations.
BROOKS: GM tried to sign him on to be part of the GM team as a consultant, and that GM would give him lots of support and money in exchange for getting exclusive rights to all of his technology. He didn't buy that at all [laugh], so he went his own way.
ZIERLER: Did you try to keep him? Did you see this as a problem for AeroVironment; that he would go off—you would lose his brain power, so to speak?
BROOKS: Yes and no. AeroVironment was doing a fair amount of work in support of the GM EV1 development program by then. One of the things that AeroVironment wasn't doing was the power electronics for the motor drive. GM and Hughes wanted to do that themselves. We were more in a support role for battery testing equipment and vehicle testing. We made some prototype vehicles just for testing various concepts. We were getting along OK without Alan. It would've been nicer if he had kept on but I think we didn't have enough going on to interest him at that point.
The initial recruiting from AC Propulsion was made to me in late 1998 by Alan and Dave Sivertsen and maybe one other from AC Propulsion, and they said they would like me to come work there instead of at AeroVironment for a big pay cut. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Big pay cut? [laugh]
BROOKS: Yeah. They were going to put this sports car that they had been working on into production and they wanted me to lead that part of the business. The car was called the tzero. I was a little familiar with it as Alan brought it to an electric vehicle conference held at Caltech in September 1998.
That was before the Toyota Prius came out. Anyway, they invited me for a lunch meeting and to go look at the AC Propulsion shop in San Dimas. So, I did that, and it was pretty cool. They were doing very impressive work for such a small company. My job there would be to take charge of the tzero production program, and getting some of the early bugs fixed. There were some handling problems with the car when I first started there. It was prone to oversteer and that kind of thing. I was not that happy at AeroVironment at the time because I was in charge of a fairly large group, and there was a tremendous amount of pressure to keep getting more new business.
ZIERLER: And what was the group?
BROOKS: It was called the Electromechanical Group, and it was primarily to support two business areas. One was the solar airplane team at AeroVironment with things like motor design and power electronics. That's one of the things Wally worked on when he was at AV. Then we were also doing a lot of electric vehicle related support for General Motors. That was a good relationship but, to me, it was very stressful. It got to where we had probably 30 or 40 people in my group and I had to make sure we had enough paid work for everybody. So, I had to do a lot of marketing and keep finding new business.
ZIERLER: And you're an engineering guy.
ZIERLER: You're not a sales guy.
BROOKS: Yeah, but I had to do both. But, anyway, I was just getting tired, and I was ready for a change, so I made the move to AC Propulsion.
ZIERLER: Now, who was it? Was it Wally or was it Alan, or both of them made the offer to you?
BROOKS: It wasn't Wally. Wally was back at AeroVironment by then. It was kind of a funny situation – several years before, Wally came to me to let me know that he was leaving AeroVironment to team up with Alan to start AC Propulsion. Then when Wally was back at AV, and I had to tell him that after 18 years at AV I was leaving to join Alan at AC Propulsion. He was sure surprised!
ZIERLER: It's like musical chairs. [laugh]
ZIERLER: So, the chronology is Wally and Alan start in 1992?
ZIERLER: What year did you join?
BROOKS: It was in early 1999.
ZIERLER: But it wasn't right at the beginning? It was some years after?
BROOKS: No, it was many years after they got started. When I got there, they had a completed tzero prototype, and they were working on the production version of the tzero. It was refined considerably from the first prototype tzero. My first task was to get that second production prototype car finished. When we say "production," this was still going to be a handcrafted, small-volume car at that point. Doing that involved—it was—I mean, I had been exposed to product things at AeroVironment, so I knew something about like what do you do to release a product. But we didn't have a big team at AC Propulsion, so I had to figure out what all the parts were to build the car, like everything down to the last nut and bolt. So, I made a database and I gave every part a part number, and where are we getting it from and how much it cost, how are we buying or manufacturing that part. I put all that together, and I was able to then sum up, OK, here's what we think all the sum of the all parts cost, so that gives us a rough idea of where we stand about making a viable production car. At that time, we had had a couple of orders from people who wanted to get one of the first tzeros. So, there were a few customers that had committed to buying one.
At that point, the car wouldn't have met many of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. So, this was kind of flying under the radar then at that point. But we worked out some of the handling problems. It turned out that we needed wider tires in the back, and narrower tires in the front, and a little bit of suspension work. Alan and I would go out to the drag strip over in Pomona, and they had some big paved areas we used for vehicle testing. We would try things like zooming across the parking lot, then jerk the steering wheel back and forth, and see if the car stayed under control. Sometimes the car would completely spin out. [laugh] Then we met—in the process of all of this—we met someone I knew from Road & Track magazine, Kim Reynolds. He was an automotive journalist. Actually, I had met him in 1989 when I gave him a ride in the Impact prototype at the Hughes Aircraft unveiling of the Impact, and so he knew me. He would go out to this track in Pomona to test acceleration and cornering of their test cars. He would let us go out there and sort of just be there with him because they had to rent the facility for all their testing. So, we could do our runs and our handling development there. We also had some problems when cornering hard and you lifted your foot off the accelerator the car would oversteer and spin out. This happened because regenerative braking came on when the accelerator pedal was lifted, and the braking on only the rear wheels during hard cornering could cause the rear wheels to lose traction and the car would spin out. We fixed that behavior with a lateral accelerometer that curtailed regenerative braking during hard cornering.
Then a couple of times, when we were testing the tzero on the skid pad where we'd just go around in a big circle, and see what kind of lateral acceleration you can get in Gs, Kim Reynolds would let us try out one of his test cars for comparison, "OK, here's—go out there and do some laps on that, and see how it feels. That's how a well-sorted-car drives." [laugh]
BROOKS: Another thing I took on was the AC Propulsion website. They had a very basic website back then. The web was quite new at the time. So, I created a redesigned and expanded web site, and I did some marketing for the tzero, and posted some videos and things like that. I was the webmaster for AC Propulsion. It was a small company. It was maybe 10 people or something like that. It was tiny, and so we all had to wear lots of hats.
ZIERLER: Now, at this point, Alec, is the EV1 saga complete? Have GM—
ZIERLER: —recalled all of the leases, or the EV1s are still out there?
BROOKS: EV1s are out there. Let's see. [pause] Yeah, I got my EV1 when I was at AeroVironment, and then I had it when I—I still had it when I left for AC Propulsion. There started to be problems with the EV1, so it was recalled a couple of times, like I mentioned last time. There were things where you had to get it—take it to the shop, and sometimes the shop had it for a week or two at a time. That was all going on during the time I was at AC Propulsion, for the most part.
ZIERLER: So, you could see, technically, the tzero and the EV1 as competitors? Is that a way to look at it?
BROOKS: No, because at that point, we were looking for a very small-volume specialty car that would sell for like $80,000 to $100,000. So, it wasn't competing with the EV1 in that regard, but it was competing—
ZIERLER: Because the EV1 was supposed to be affordable; like middle-class families could buy it?
BROOKS: Yeah, but the EV1 was only leased. But it was more a mainstream car. You could lease it and go to a dealership and get service. Whereas if you bought a tzero from this tiny company, it's a different level of commitment and risk [laugh] than buying a car from an automaker. So, we had a few orders, and we delivered a couple of cars to real customers. It was going kind of slowly. In January 2000 we took the tzero up to Silicon Valley to try to drum up interest. Tom Gage and I drove it up there, and did some of the common things you do in Silicon Valley to get the attention of the in-crowd up there with money, and young techies with money to invest in startup companies and things. One thing we did was we got permission, somehow [laugh], from Moffett Field, the Naval Air Station, was to run some drag races out on the taxiway of their airport [laugh] to show how the tzero accelerated faster than the cars that the tech elite were driving back then. We had a little hybrid trailer that Alan developed. Tom Gage and I drove it there from Southern California. We invited—through some contacts we had up there, we invited people to bring out their fancy gas-powered sports cars, to have a race against this new electric car.
ZIERLER: How many tzeroes were there at this point?
BROOKS: One was the prototype and the other was the ‘production' version. So, we had some people come out, one was Andy Rubin, who was the original developer of Android. He came out with his Ferrari. [laugh] Some other people came out with some pretty hot cars. We set up a 1/8th-mile drag strip on the taxiway. I have videos of this too. It's pretty funny. But the tzero beat them all the time. We won.
BROOKS: So, those guys were pretty impressed with this electric car. "It's faster than my Ferrari".
ZIERLER: Alec, did you need to—I mean, would the tzero just win without juicing it up or putting it into some—
ZIERLER: —special mode? You can just drive it normally, and it just goes?
BROOKS: Yeah. Yeah, it wasn't any special mode. It just—yeah, you just stomp on the accelerator, and it goes. Fully charged is best because it gives you the highest power. But the tzero won all the races handily. I'll send you—I'll find the video, and send it to you, because it was pretty funny.
ZIERLER: What is it about electronic propulsion that can make this little car beat a Ferrari? Is it torque? Is it no gear-shifting? What is it?
BROOKS: Well, we had only a single-speed transmission, so there was no gear-shifting, so you didn't have to spend any time shifting gears because when you shift gears on a manual transmission, you always lose a little bit of time between the gears. No, I think it's just the torque curve of the motor, and there's that—I think I sent you that paper Tom Gage and I wrote that shows how you can have really high performance and high efficiency in the same car, which is really hard to do in a gas car. The tzero had an induction motor, which Wally was one of the early proponents of. With an induction motor, if it's not being asked to put out torque, it doesn't really have any spinning drag. It can spin freely when it's not putting out torque. Whereas permanent magnet motors can induce iron losses in the stator laminations because of the magnetic field rotating around in the stator, the iron laminations of the stator. So, for various reasons, you can—with electric propulsion, you can get very high power and high efficiency in the same vehicle. I have a Chevy Bolt, and it has very high efficiency, and pretty fast acceleration. It's like 0 to 60 in six seconds.
ZIERLER: Which is fast.
BROOKS: Yeah, it's fast. It feels quick. But I think we were a bit too early, maybe by a year, in sort of the Silicon Valley time. But we took it there. We took it to something called a Sand Hill Challenge. It was like a soapbox derby race on Sand Hill Road. Sand Hill Road is where all the VC companies are lined up. They had this big fun charity every year called the Sand Hill Challenge. It's just kind of a fun event where people come out with some kind of a car, and do timed runs coasting down the Sand Hill. [laugh] So, all the VCs are out there. We hoped the exposure of the tzero at the event could lead to something – it didn't.
We also took the tzero up in the hills to Jakes Tavern in Woodside where we heard that VCs hung out. We took it there, and parked it outside, to see if we could get some interest. We didn't.
ZIERLER: Now, is this right in the middle of the dot-com boom? Is there just like serious tech money—
BROOKS: Yeah, yeah.
ZIERLER: —at this point?
BROOKS: It was getting started. It was just in the beginning of that, I would say. There wasn't huge money yet, but it was coming very soon.
ZIERLER: Best case scenario, what were you looking for with one of these tech billionaires? What would be great for AC Propulsion? Like $100 million—
ZIERLER: —to mass-produce something? What are you looking at here?
BROOKS: [laugh] I think it was more like hundreds of thousands of dollars [laugh] or something, or less than a million.
ZIERLER: What did AC Propulsion need? What kind of capital infusion was necessary at that point?
BROOKS: Probably something less than a million would've been very helpful right around then. We didn't really get much traction. The last thing I was working on was a plan for what would the tzero need to have changed in order for it to meet all the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards as a real car? Because that would help, I think, be able to get investor money if you could prove that you had a pathway to get it to be a real car. So compliance would have involved things like airbags, retractable seat belts, and—
ZIERLER: Which the tzero did not have, no airbags?
BROOKS: No, none of that stuff.
ZIERLER: It had seatbelts but not retractable?
BROOKS: Yeah, they were essentially racing harnesses. There's also standards for wipers, and crashworthiness, and bumper standards. I made this big plan that showed here's all the stuff we would need to do to make it compliant with the FMVSS.
ZIERLER: Did you bring on a consultant that had experience in regulation or—
ZIERLER: —you wore that hat also?
BROOKS: Yes. I wore that hat because we had no money to hire a consultant to do that. I knew the car really well, and I downloaded the standards, and I just went through them line-by-line, and figured out where our car was noncompliant. I think the results of that sort of drove home that the tzero as a production car was not really feasible, or it wasn't something anyone wanted to try to find the funding for because it was just going to be really hard. At that point, that was close to the time I left AC Propulsion. At around that time, AC Propulsion started looking at doing conversion cars. I can't remember which car they converted. Some little econobox car.
ZIERLER: The Scion, the xB.
BROOKS: Scion, yeah, that's it.
ZIERLER: Which is a Toyota.
BROOKS: So, yeah, they did some Scions. Later, they did quite a few BMW Mini Es. Now, that was actually a real production where they made, I think, maybe 100 or 200 or something like that.
ZIERLER: Now, was that a way to get around the regulatory challenges of the tzero itself? You had the technology but it's in a shell that already meets those federal requirements?
BROOKS: Yeah, you have most of the required elements there. You may have to do some crash testing or something to verify that you didn't have to strengthen something.
Let me just circle back a little bit. The other thing that I was working on at AC Propulsion was how we could take advantage of the unique charging system that Alan had developed. What was unique about it is that it was fairly high-power, and just plugging in to a big AC power outlet, you could get 20 kilowatts of charge power, which is pretty fast. You could also have the car feed electricity back to the grid, or you could have the car feed power out to an AC outlet that you could have another car plug in to to charge. Or you could plug in a house to provide power during a power outage. That was all part of the magic of the AC150 electronics box that Alan made. It was basically a bidirectional power converter. It provided variable frequency AC power to the vehicle motor for driving, and when the car was parked, it could also be the vehicle charger to convert offboard AC power to DC to charge the battery, or it could go in a backwards direction to provide power from the vehicle battery to your house or to the power grid. I tried to figure out where this novel capability could be useful, and potentially have value that you could even use to help pay for your car. This was during the period of Enron and great swings of wholesale electricity pricing.
ZIERLER: This is 2000, 2001?
BROOKS: Yeah, and going back a few years too.
Also, because this power inverter controlled the vehicle drive motor, it had to react really fast, so it could actually change the power output from the car back to the grid really fast too. It was a very high-rate changer. We got a small grant from the LADWP to look at applications of bidirectional power flow between vehicles and the grid. They funded some early research. Along the way I made a cold call to the California grid operator, the Cal ISO, up in Folsom, California. I eventually got transferred to Dave Hawkins. He was pretty helpful. I told him about what we were doing, and asked, could this capability of having power flow back and forth on command from some external source be of value to the grid? The answer was essentially, "Yeah, there's a grid ancillary service that we have that does that kind of thing, but it's usually done by powerplants." But he didn't see any reason why it couldn't in theory be done by thousands of electric cars that are plugged into the grid, and if they're properly connected with the communications to do those kinds of functions. So, we ended up—so, we called that capability V2G, short for vehicle-to-grid. I came up with that acronym because, back then, there was a new internet-related acronym called B2B, short for Business-to-Business. Did you ever see that?
BROOKS: It was a B with a 2 and a B. It stood for Business-to-Business. That was a way of describing new business opportunities enabled by the internet. There's all this great new stuff with the internet. It was—you're probably too young to remember all of the beginnings of the internet. [laugh] But people were coming up with all these acronyms, B2B. So, I said, "OK, we're going to have V2G, Vehicle-to-Grid [laugh], V2G."
BROOKS: So, we got—
ZIERLER: You also have blackouts are becoming a problem.
BROOKS: Yeah. So with AC Propulsion's V2G capability, you'd have backup power for your house. You could keep your house power going for a while during a power outage.
We found out about ancillary services that the grid operator pays power plants for performing. One of these services is to keep the frequency of the grid at a nearly-constant 60 Hz. Because you basically have to always match the power generation amount to the total amount of load, and that's what keeps the frequency in balance. If you have too much load, and you don't compensate with more generation, the frequency starts to droop. If you look at a frequency plot of the grid, it's always going up and down kind of slowly. But it bounces around maybe .01, maybe .1 hertz. It's like 60 Hz average but maybe it goes up to 60.1 or down to 59.9, and it's just a smooth trace. We figured that a vehicle on charge could accurately follow a frequency error signal and feed power to or from the grid. It's basically a giant feedback loop on a whole grid that keeps that frequency nearly at a nearly-constant 60 Hz. It's just a constant balancing of generation and load. Electric cars could do that really well. We also showed a way that the car can directly measure the grid frequency and respond autonomously to be a stabilizer on the grid. We had all of these things, and we presented at conferences, and we published a few papers about it. I think it got some interest going, and I think there's still some groups that are still pursuing that. I think it's an opportunity that still hasn't been really realized in our grid.
One thing that bothers me is that in California, the grid operator has to turn off renewable generation quite frequently, sometimes every day for part of the day because there's too much of it, and there's not enough load. If you're on a not-too-hot day, and you have a lot of renewable generation but don't have a lot of air conditioning load out in the state, they often have to shut off all or part of the wind and solar generation." It's losing energy that could've been generated had there been enough load to absorb it, so why not have your electric car sitting on the grid just on standby, and it could start charging on demand instead of having to turn off the solar or wind generation. Instead of turning off renewable generation, turn on additional EV charging load, and then you're getting true zero-emissions power because the power wouldn't have been generated had you not had the car there to take the power on demand.
ZIERLER: Alec, for this idea to become feasible, don't you need a fleet that is like a majority of what drivers are buying, are using?
BROOKS: No. Any EV could do it. You could do it through a network connected charging station. It doesn't have to be in the car. When the car plugs into a charging station, the charging station has control over when and how much power the car actually draws out of that access point. The charging station is a standardized thing. So, it probably makes more sense to put a lot of those controls in the charging station, and just have the charging stations tell the cars on how much power to draw.
Then later on when I was at Google, we spent more time on those kinds of functional uses of electric cars, trying to make the business case for electric cars, have these other roles they can play to help the grid, and get more renewables generated. We published an article called "Demand Dispatch'' in the IEEE Power and Energy Magazine. [Link to full article at the end.]
BROOKS: We envisioned that when you could have tens of thousands of cars, each with a fast internet connection, you could send signals out to a huge number of cars all at once, you could do some very interesting things. I didn't know much about the communications part, but we had people at Google who were very knowledgeable about that, and could say, "OK, yeah, that's a viable thing you could do," because this was Google – they have a lot of computer power, and a lot of [laugh] communications capability. That's something I'm still anxious to see if it ever materializes, because I have an electric car, and the low time-of-use electricity rates I get are only from midnight to noon every day. It is always the same rate, about 21 cents a kilowatt hour for off-peak. [laugh] But if you could have the charging be super-customized where you just take power that would otherwise have been curtailed if you weren't there to take it, then you ought to be able to get a far lower rate because you're increasing the total renewable generation. So, I'm hoping somebody finally figures that out. That basically means you have to have a lot of cars connected to the grid not charging, just waiting to charge. If you have home charging and a car capable of 300 miles range, you usually don't need to charge it to full every day, but when at home the car could be connected to the charger waiting to take renewable power that would have otherwise been curtailed.
ZIERLER: That's what I was asking earlier about for this to work, you need a—for it to make an appreciable difference, you need a lot of electric cars—
BROOKS: Yeah, which is—
ZIERLER: —on the road.
BROOKS: —which is going to happen sooner than we think.
BROOKS: Yeah, it's happening really fast right now.
ZIERLER: How much of a risk was this for you just financially, regardless of the stress factor of what was pushing you out of AeroVironment at that point? Did AC Propulsion have paying customers? Was there a paycheck waiting for you every two weeks or—?
BROOKS: Yeah, there was but it wasn't very big. [laugh]
BROOKS: No, there were—well, there weren't many paying customers at the time, but there were a few things. We got that project through the DWP. We got some related projects, and we got one through the California Air Resources Board. But it was getting harder, that's for sure. Around the time that I left, Alan was working on a big electric glider, essentially, with a high-efficiency electric motor. We were talking about the possibility of using lithium batteries in that glider.
ZIERLER: All right. So, this gets me back to my original question. When did you first become aware that lithium-ion batteries were around and could be used in cars?
BROOKS: [pause] Well, I guess, there's two answers to that. Not long after I joined AC Propulsion, Nissan produced a few prototype electric cars using lithium batteries. It was called the Nissan Altra. It was a station wagon and it had lithium batteries.
ZIERLER: Did you drive it?
ZIERLER: Was it a good car?
BROOKS: I never drove it. There were very few of them. They showed them around to a few places, and they were rumored to have incredibly expensive battery packs. So, that kind of didn't go anywhere for quite a while, and it was just like everyone thought that the battery cost was prohibitively high. This was really early on in lithium battery development and experience. Later on, when I was talking to Alan, lithium batteries—the cylindrical cells are a little bit bigger than an AA cell; more like almost like a C cell but longer—started showing up in laptop computers and were mass-produced for laptop computers, at least. They had far higher energy per pound than nickel-cadmium or nickel-metal-hydride batteries that Alan had been using in his airplanes. So, we thought about, well, what if we tried to get some of these laptop cells, and you could try them out in your plane. We were actually thinking of doing some things through AC Propulsion with Alan's plane that would've been actually in competition with AeroVironment. [laugh]
BROOKS: Because AeroVironment was flying this big solar plane, and they had a demonstration flight planned through NASA in Hawaii to go and take infrared pictures of coffee plantations to see when the crop was ripe or something, and they were going to use this big, expensive solar plane to do it. Alan and I were sort of noodling around. Could Alan's plane carry a similar kind of a sensor but a very lightweight one, and do this whole mission at 1/100th of the cost [laugh] or something? AeroVironment I don't think ever got wind of that. But we were just trying to think about it. Lithium batteries would help a lot in something like that, to be able to fly for a few hours, and go and take all these multispectral pictures and things. So, I helped him to find the manufacturer of the batteries. We were a company, so we were able to purchase these lithium battery cells.
ZIERLER: Right. What was the company? Where were they located?
BROOKS: Oh, I don't remember. It was just one of the battery companies, you know, Toshiba or something. I don't know. It was some company that made batteries. We just ordered them as AC Propulsion, and we got maybe 20 or 30 cells. Alan did put them in his airplane, so he did characterize them, and they did work in his plane. I have one picture where I stuck a bunch of those battery cells together into a little simulated module for an EV —they weren't electrically connected but just on the conference room table—and I took a picture of it. We thought about that, and we said, "Well, we could make a car with these kinds of cells." [laugh] I showed that picture at a CARB workshop in December 2002. I said, "Here's another thing we're looking into, these kinds of lithium battery cells could be used for EVs." (excerpt below)
Shortly after I left AC Propulsion in early 2003, AC Propulsion was contacted by Martin Eberhard, one of the founders of Tesla. He had heard something about lithium batteries, and so he essentially commissioned AC Propulsion to put lithium batteries into one of the tzeroes. I think it was the original tzero prototype. So, they took out the lead-acid batteries, and Alan and Dave and Tom Gage designed a lithium ion battery module of about the size of the 12V batteries used in the tzero. The tzero was transformed with those lithium batteries. Instead of 0 to 60 in four seconds, it was like three seconds, and the range was now about tripled from the lead acid version. It just transformed it. That eventually got the attention of the other Tesla founders, J. B. Straubel and Elon Musk.
ZIERLER: Did you see these as exponential advances or marginal advances, the battery change, the range and the power?
BROOKS: Well, I would say instead of exponential, I'd say transformative, because 80-miles range on an electric car is—it takes a lot of planning to live with a car with 80-miles range. If you have two or three hundred miles, then it doesn't take a lot of planning. My Bolt has a range of 300 miles, and I charge it only about once a month.
The Origins of Tesla
ZIERLER: Do you think—to go back to this interesting question of bringing the tzero up to Silicon Valley, and trying to garner some big money investment—if you had lithium-ion in it at that point, and you had the acceleration and the range that you had later on, would there have been more support for it earlier on?
BROOKS: Yeah, totally. I think there would've been. It wasn't very long after I left that that's what happened. Martin Eberhard said, "Just put lithium batteries in this car. I don't want to buy the car. Just put the batteries in it, and I want to borrow it for a while." So, that's what they did. Martin borrowed it for a while, and did all of the rounds in Silicon Valley with it. Also, we were like Southern California techies back then. Silicon Valley is a whole different culture, and we weren't really acclimated to that so much. He had a pitch deck that highlighted the lithium tzero (excerpt below).
ZIERLER: Alec, maybe just some battery 101. Why are lithium-ion batteries so much better? How do they give us better performance and range?
BROOKS: [pause] Well, I think—I'm not a battery expert. But I think the lithium batteries have a much higher voltage than the other batteries, so for a given amount of amp hours, you get a lot more energy.
ZIERLER: What about from a resource and production perspective? This early in the game, was AC Propulsion—were they confident that lithium ion battery technology was viable, just in terms of getting the raw materials?
BROOKS: I don't think we ever looked that far because we were talking about a low-volume sports car, and now we're talking about lithium-ion for millions of cars.
ZIERLER: But, clearly, Martin Eberhard must've been thinking along those lines. You don't create Tesla without having some level of assurance that you're going to be able to put batteries in these cars that work.
BROOKS: Several months after I left AC Propulsion and went back to AeroVironment, Martin Eberhard tried to recruit me to go join him in his new little startup company. He says, "We're going to make electric sports cars." [laugh]
ZIERLER: Which is AC Propulsion, essentially.
BROOKS: Yeah. I had just left AC Propulsion a few months before, and he calls and says he wants to go have lunch with me. I kind of knew who he was, but I hadn't yet met him at that point. I had lunch with him and two other Tesla founders: Marc Tarpenning, and Ian Wright. They wanted me to join them in their startup because I had so much experience with the tzero, and I said to him, "You're crazy. That's going to be so hard." [laugh] "I just got back to a stable paying job!" Also I wasn't about to move to the Bay Area.
ZIERLER: Was it his time borrowing the tzero? Was that really what was transformative for him?
BROOKS: Yeah, sure.
ZIERLER: That was it?
BROOKS: Yeah. That's what really convinced people – seeing that this car could out-accelerate most cars on the road, and made zero emissions, and was fun to drive, and accessible to drive too. It didn't require manual transmissions or anything.
ZIERLER: Is Elon Musk a player at this point yet, or he comes on later?
BROOKS: He came in very close to the same time. These are things to check with Dave Sivertsen and Alan. But I think there were two different factions that came together. There was Martin Eberhard, Marc Tarpenning, and Ian Wright. Wright had developed this little lightweight sports car prototype with a gas engine. So those three had heard about the tzero, and Martin had commissioned putting lithium batteries in it. Then in a parallel track, J. B. Straubel knew Elon Musk, I think maybe they worked together at SpaceX a little bit. So, they were out looking and sniffing around, and I think they went and talked to AC Propulsion because JB had visited AC Propulsion a couple years earlier to show us his homemade plug-in hybrid (it consisted of a Porsche that he had converted to an electric vehicle and a trailer that was the front half of a Volkswagen Rabbit, engine and all. The trailer would push the electric Porsche down the road. I think AC Propulsion told Musk and Straubel that they were focusing on building EVs based on a Scion car and doing a production version of the tzero would be too hard based on how much would have to change to meet the safety standards.)
The Roadster that Tesla eventually made was FMVSS-certified, and it was really, really hard, and it took a lot of money. I think AC Propulsion just didn't think in terms of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. They thought in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe. [laugh] They could buy these Scion cars, and strip out the engine, and put in an AC Propulsion drivetrain—it was kind of something they could wrap their arms around like, "OK, we can make Scion cars, and we can prove the process, and get dozens of them out there."
ZIERLER: As far as Alan was concerned, this is just good from an environmental perspective?
BROOKS: Yeah. It also was to make the car drive better than the gas-powered one, and have better acceleration, and smoother acceleration, that kind of stuff. Anyway, I think we all clearly thought that electric propulsion was the way to go to make a car that's just better to drive.
I think AC Propulsion was sort of happy doing these Scion conversions, and there was no appetite to restart the whole tzero thing again. So, I think Tom Gage (AC Propulsion CEO) told one of them, "You should go talk to Elon," or told Elon, "You should go talk to this guy, Eberhard, because they want to do something like you're talking about." [laugh] He made that introduction. Usually, in the tech industry, making introductions should be getting you some stock or some [laugh] share of what comes out of it. AC Propulsion didn't come out that strong after that. But I do think Tesla would not have happened without the existence of AC Propulsion and the tzero.
ZIERLER: Well, that's for sure. That's for sure. Were there any discussions about J. B. or Eberhard acquiring AC Propulsion? Were they interested in that at all? What was proprietary? What did they need to license or ask permission for? How did that work in terms of the earliest origins of Tesla?
BROOKS: I think there were—well, there were a couple of patents at AC Propulsion relating to the drive unit with integrated charging that Alan had developed. There was a patent on that, and I think Tesla licensed that patent. I don't think Alan would have liked being part of a big stressful EV startup like Tesla. He probably did not have visions of AC Propulsion becoming part of the most valuable car company in the world.
ZIERLER: Alec, in 2002, your decision to return to AeroVironment, so, first of all, as context to that, what was happening at AC Propulsion around that time?
BROOKS: I had just finished that study of what it would take to productionize the tzero, essentially to make it compliant with the federal motor vehicle safety standards. And it didn't look like anyone was too interested in doing that. Too much would have to change. And the pay for the principals in the company— like me and Alan and Tom Gage and Dave Sivertsen—had been cut way down to conserve cash.
ZIERLER: Yeah. So, this was unsustainable?
BROOKS: Yeah. For me, I couldn't go on like that.
ZIERLER: You have a family to support and all that.
BROOKS: Yeah, well, my wife was working too, but I started looking around. I didn't immediately think of AeroVironment. I thought they might not want to take me back. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Did you leave on good terms from AeroVironment?
BROOKS: Yes, they gave me a going away party and some framed pictures. I left on good terms. Then I finally just called up the AeroVironment President, Tim Conver, and told him I was interested in coming back if they would have me. [laugh] He said, "OK, well, let me look into it." It wasn't an obvious thing right away because they didn't have a huge amount of business but they were doing pretty well. So, he said I could come back but I would be working on a hydrogen-powered airplane. I said, "OK, that sounds interesting."
ZIERLER: I assume you were sensitive to not just going back to the very situation that you were looking to get out of, supporting 30, 40 people and—
ZIERLER: —scrounging for funds.
BROOKS: Yeah, that's right. So, I was in more of a more technical role and I didn't have anyone reporting to me.
ZIERLER: It sounds like a dream, actually.
BROOKS: Yeah, it was good. It was very interesting work. They had a project for the government to design and build a demonstrator airplane that could fly for a week at 60,000 feet with hydrogen as the fuel. They didn't require hydrogen but that was kind of the only way we could figure out that you could do that, and carry a payload.
ZIERLER: This is the AV Global Observer high-altitude, long-endurance plane.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the origins of this. What was this plane all about?
BROOKS: Well, the origin happened before I went back to AeroVironment. But my understanding was that it was intended to be a demonstrator. I think it was called a Joint Capability Technology Demonstration or JCTD. It was something to show what would be possible. It didn't have—as far as I knew—it didn't have an identified mission, other than fly for a week at 65,000 feet. So, it was just like a big technology demonstrator development, and it was a really hard thing to do and it required a lot of new technology development. The only fuel we could envision this working at all with was hydrogen, and it had to be liquid hydrogen because the tanks for compressed hydrogen would have been heavier than the hydrogen. We had to make—figure out—design a hydrogen tank, and the hydrogen tank had to weigh a lot less than the hydrogen it was carrying; otherwise, it wouldn't make any sense. [laugh]
ZIERLER: What are some obvious materials to look at for this unique arrangement?
BROOKS: Well, there's two pieces of the puzzle. There's the structural part, and then there's the thermal insulation part.
ZIERLER: Because it's so cold—
BROOKS: Yeah, it's liquid.
ZIERLER: —in those atmospheric conditions?
BROOKS: No, it's liquid hydrogen, so you have to—and the outside ambient temperature, even at high altitude, is a lot higher than the liquid hydrogen temperature. So, any heat that leaks into the hydrogen boils off the hydrogen, which has to be vented unless you're using it that fast. Then the other part is the tank structure. I did a lot of work on the tank with Bart Hibbs, another Caltech grad. Bart's father, by the way, Al Hibbs, was the voice of JPL for a couple of decades, I think. Anyway, so, we came up with a tank design. It was a spherical tank. We actually got some patents on it which, to me, was a little bit unusual because it would've been relatively easy to keep it as a trade secret because nobody could see it. But we patented it, and so it's public knowledge what we did. [laugh] Then the other challenge was how to use the hydrogen to propel the airplane. I think we had decided early on that it would have multiple electric motors with propellers on the wing. This was a big airplane – 175-foot wingspan with four electric motors driving propellers, and so we needed to generate electricity from this hydrogen.
So, the first approach that AeroVironment had been working with was a fuel cell, which can be quite efficient. But the problem was that the air density and pressure were very low at that altitude, so they had to put electric compressors in there. It was looking marginal. So, one of the things that I was pushing was let's do it with a piston engine, and we can make it highly turbo-charged to compress air using the heat and pressure of the exhaust coming out of the engine to run a turbo-charger to compress the air going in. So, we did that, and we got it to work quite well, and I think we were higher efficiency overall than with the fuel cell approach. We made that, and it was a two-stage turbo-charger. It was probably about 35 to 1 pressure ratio from ambient pressure at altitude to the intake manifold pressure of the engine, so we compressed the air a lot, and got it working pretty well. We did a lot of testing in test cells. Then around that time, I left AeroVironment to go work for Tesla [laugh] before the plane flew.
ZIERLER: Who were the clients? What was the intended clientele for this plane?
BROOKS: The US government. It was a DOD technology demonstrator project.
ZIERLER: Is this like, drones? Are they looking at drone technology for this?
BROOKS: It was like a drone in that it was unmanned. But it was not like you'd normally think of a drone. It was a very large airplane, big as an airliner, but unmanned. It had people on the ground flying it through radio control and autopilots and monitoring it, and all that sort of thing.
ZIERLER: For what purpose? What would the military use this for?
BROOKS: Well, I think that was part of the first part. They called it a technology demonstrator. So, part of it was convincing the DOD that this kind of thing might be useful. Let's see if we can prove that it could work. I may not have understood everything but that's—it was called a joint technology demonstrator or something. So, it's like maybe there's some funding from all different branches of the government that might be interested in this that just said, "OK, we're going to do a technology demonstrator airplane to see what this can do."
ZIERLER: What could it do? What was the new technology?
BROOKS: Well, the new technology was to be able to fly at high altitude for a long time. Then you could put in various sensor packages. Because you're up so high, you can look a long way.
ZIERLER: What about replacing the B-52 for second-strike nuclear capability, for example?
BROOKS: No, it would not have been possible. [laugh] The amount of weight it could carry was tiny compared to what a regular bomber carries. No, I don't think—that was not in the cards because this plane is—it's fragile and it's slow. It was meant to carry some sensors up to high altitude, and loiter for a week. You can imagine, like, say you have something like a Cuban Missile Crisis from back in 1962.
ZIERLER: '62, yeah.
BROOKS: '62, so if you had had one of these airplanes then, you could've parked it over Cuba, and taken pictures 24 hours a day of what was going on on the ground. Instead, I think they sent U-2s over to take pictures, and one of them got shot down.
ZIERLER: So, mostly, this would have intelligence value?
BROOKS: Yeah. That was my understanding.
ZIERLER: What about for like, you know, around this time, the Seasat program at JPL, really using satellites to look at climate change on Earth? Would this have been—?
BROOKS: No, I don't think it would've been that useful for that because it can't continuously look without great expense of having multiple planes coming up and coming down, because you might be up there for five or ten days—or five or eight days—but you're not up there for months. That's where solar power I think would make a better choice.
ZIERLER: Right. Was this a big project? You were there—back at AeroVironment, you were there for six years. Is this the main thing you worked on, 2002 to 2008?
BROOKS: OK. Yeah, I think it was. There was a lot of development. We had to develop the whole engine, and turbo-charging everything from scratch almost. That was the bulk of it. I left AeroVironment before the plane had flown. Later, I think, on the second or third flight, it crashed and was destroyed, and that kind of ended the whole program.
BROOKS: So, it didn't go very far. But I'm glad that they did get patents for much of the work we did on the engine and the turbo-charging system. That's all patented, so it's public domain, which I can go back and show people what it was that I had been working on in Simi Valley for that project. You know where that is?
BROOKS: Yeah, it's way out there. [laugh] I live in Pasadena, so my commute was kind of horrid. But I was out at Simi Valley one day in the summer of 2007, and I get a call from Martin Eberhard and J. B. Straubel, and they say, "Hey, we want you to come and work for Tesla." [laugh]
ZIERLER: Now, were you keeping tabs on what they were up to?
ZIERLER: What kind of advances had they made up until that point?
BROOKS: Well, they were nearing production of the Roadster. I had been—they had this big coming out party in this hangar building over at Santa Monica Airport in July 2006. I got an invitation to that and went. They had this very fancy party, and gave people rides in the Roadster prototypes around the parking lot.
ZIERLER: Was that your first time seeing the Roadster?
BROOKS: On my first day at Tesla..
ZIERLER: How much of the tzero did you see in the Roadster?
BROOKS: Well, it was like the productionized tzero, basically.
ZIERLER: Had they poached anybody from AC Propulsion?
BROOKS: Well, I wouldn't say "poached" [laugh]. They did poach Wally from AeroVironment. I'll say that. [laugh] Anyway, Martin and JB called me up one day, and they said they wanted to talk to me about going to join Tesla, and they had come a long way from the first time they tried to recruit me—they had a car that they thought was near production. (But it wasn't quite ready).
ZIERLER: Their financing was what? Was it all Eberhard and Musk at that point?
BROOKS: It was mostly Musk and there may have been a few other people. So, I arranged to have breakfast with J. B. and Martin at the Athenaeum. [laugh] It's one of my favorite places to go for breakfast if you're going to have a business meeting. So, we did that, and then they said, "OK, we want you to come out and meet Elon."
ZIERLER: What was their division of labor? What did they—between J. B. and Martin, what—who did what?
BROOKS: Martin was the president at the time, and J. B. was essentially the chief technology officer. They were clearly among the very top people in the company. They said, "maybe tomorrow you can come out and meet Elon at SpaceX".
ZIERLER: That's funny to think. You think, usually, that with Elon Musk, it was Tesla and then SpaceX. But it was really the other way around.
BROOKS: Well, I'm not sure which one came first. At that point Musk was the primary investor in Tesla but he wasn't running the company on a day-to-day basis. He was the chairman of the board, I think, at the time.
ZIERLER: So, operationally, he wasn't involved with the day-to-day at that point?
BROOKS: No but he did become fairly engaged soon after I joined. So JB and I went to talk to him in his office at SpaceX. I had put together some thoughts about what I thought the Tesla sedan (later called Model S) ought to be like, and he didn't like my ideas very much [laugh], which maybe was good because I had been looking at renderings of what the new-generation Prius was going to look like, the 2010 Prius, and thought that that was kind of a nice kind of a shape, aerodynamic, and efficient, and all this stuff. He didn't like that idea. He wanted something much more styled, which is fine. In retrospect I think he was right.
ZIERLER: Now, at that breakfast at the Ath, was this where Martin and J. B.—did they make you an offer, or was meeting Elon part of it, or what—
ZIERLER: —was the sequence?
BROOKS: No, there had to be a meeting with Elon first to get his buy-in because he would have to approve people at this level. It was an OK meeting overall. At the end Elon gave us a tour around SpaceX as it existed then, which was pretty interesting and impressive, and I thought it seemed like they were pretty far along. They had some very high-tech manufacturing processes. Anyway, I guess they got his buy-in that they could hire me.
ZIERLER: What was the offer? What was the title? What were going to be your responsibilities?
BROOKS: That was a little weird. My title was "Director of Vehicle Technology", and that's not a title you see very often. It wasn't clear what my role would be. So, it was kind of like, OK, I worked on this tzero, and I had a lot of practical experience. [laugh] When I started there, I saw that they had a lot of very smart, very good people, many of them from Stanford from the solar car days. But they were doing a lot of things right. They put out a press release announcing that I had been hired:
Electric Vehicle Pioneer Alec Brooks Joins Tesla Motors Team
With more than 25 years of engineering and design experience on projects like the GM Impact and EV1, Alec Brooks Brought on as Director of Vehicle Technology at Tesla Motors
SAN CARLOS, Calif. -- (July 26, 2007) -- Tesla Motors, a manufacturer of high-performance electric cars, has hired Alec Brooks as the Director of Vehicle Technology. Alec brings to Tesla Motors his experience as the Project Manager and Chief Engineer on GM's Impact Electric Car. The Impact was the inspiration for GM's production electric car, the EV1, and its existence helped prompt the California Air Resources Board to adopt their ground-breaking Zero Emission Vehicle mandate in 1990.
"Alec's experience and insight in the field of electric vehicle program development is unrivaled and he makes a welcome addition to the Tesla engineering team, said JB Straubel, Chief Technology Officer at Tesla Motors. "He joins a vibrant and dynamic engineering program and his contributions here will no doubt prove to be invaluable."
Prior to joining Tesla, Alec had previously held the role of Chief Technology Officer at AC Propulsion where he contributed to the development of the ground-breaking tzero prototype electric car and also led the first-ever vehicle-to-grid demonstration project with support from the California Air Resources Board and the California grid operator, the Cal ISO. He continues to be a proponent for, and expert in the field of, both vehicle-to-grid program development as well as public policy as it relates to the development of alternative fuel vehicle technology, including benchmarking electric vehicles against fuel cell alternatives.
ZIERLER: Was the Roadster for sale?
BROOKS: No, it wasn't. It hadn't been released yet because there were a few problems with it. The worst was they had been using a two-speed transmission back then because they thought they couldn't get the acceleration and top speed they wanted with a single-speed transmission. They had made a two speed transmission but the shock load from shifting it was sometimes damaging the transmission. So they went back to single speed transmission and made changes to get the acceleration they wanted.
ZIERLER: What were your impressions of Elon Musk when you first met him? He has this aura about him now. Was that there then, or he's cultivated this over the years? And how did you understand, from a business development standpoint, the sequencing of the Roadster first, and then a really high-end, expensive Model S as a way to launch the company into the mainstream? How did you understand that sequencing?
BROOKS: Well, that was probably the logical way to do it because with the Roadster, they were starting with the chassis of a Lotus Elise. There was some production [consideration] and safety standards compliance sort of baked in from the beginning by using an existing vehicle chassis. It was probably less work to get a two-seat Roadster into production than a big sedan. That made sense.
One of the things J.B. handed off to me was that Tesla had a contract with Pacific Gas and Electric to demonstrate some sort of vehicle-to-grid project. It had just been lingering because nobody was available to do the work. He said, "Go do this project with PG&E, and write the report." So, I did that. We basically took a Roadster, and made a little WiFi telemetry box, and were able to charge the car with variable charge rate under command from a simulated utility. We were simulating a grid frequency regulation ancillary service. So, we showed that, and I wrote a paper about it that I presented at a conference.
http [Alec file PG&E]
I also wrote a Tesla blog post about it. It is still on online.
We did that. But at around that time, my role was not really that clearly defined. I think they just wanted me because I had tzero experience. But they had all these other people that were working on all the components of the car, and the motor drive electronics, and the control strategy, and they were doing a pretty good job.
From Tesla to Google
ZIERLER: Were you commuting up to the Bay Area?
BROOKS: Yes, every week. I would stay there for two days, and work from home for three days. Remote working wasn't as advanced as we have now. But you could show a presentation, and have it show up on remote computers, and so we did some of that. Audio was by conference calls.
But around then Tesla started laying people off, and to my surprise Wally was one that got laid off. Actually, I was Wally's boss [laugh] when I was at Tesla. Then one day when I arrived there, they told me that Wally had been let go. I said, "What? I didn't know that." So, with all the layoffs, I got a sense that the company was getting low on money. I didn't have a clearly defined role in getting the Roadster to production. So, I said to myself, "I've got to find something else to do before"—
ZIERLER: So, you jumped ship?
BROOKS: I jumped ship.
ZIERLER: You saw what things were happening,
BROOKS: One of my former employees from AeroVironment, Alec Proudfoot, was then at Google. So, I put in a call to him, and said, "I'm thinking of leaving Tesla. Do you think there is any kind of role for me at Google?" Bart Hibbs and I had previously done a little bit of work for Google from AeroVironment on some ideas for powering data centers. Alec said, "Yes, maybe, we're just starting up this renewable energy initiative called Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal, or RE<C, and we're putting a team together." [laugh] He was enthusiastic about me joining the project and he managed to get me an on-site interview without going through a bunch of phone screen interviews, which was a huge benefit, because once I was working at Google, I realized that when you do phone screens, maybe one out of ten of those phone screens get to an on-site interview. [laugh] So, I got to skip that step. They scheduled me for an on-site interview. The way it works there is you have probably five or six people you're going to talk to individually, and your interviews are scheduled for about 30 minutes back-to-back. After 30 minutes you go meet with the next person. They scheduled my interview on a day that I was going to be at Tesla. I hadn't told anyone at Tesla I was thinking about leaving. Elon was having this large staff meeting where he was going over some new ideas for the Model S. The employees crowded around in a small conference room. I kept looking at my watch, and [laugh] I saw that my interview at Google was in 30 minutes. So, I finally just—I just left. I just walked out and left and didn't—I just said, "I've got something else I have to take care of." So, I drove like crazy to get to Google in time, and I just barely made it. The interviews went really well and I got hired. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Now, when you left Tesla, in your wildest imagination, would you think that it would be where it is today?
BROOKS: No, at the time I thought it was going under. I thought it was on that path. Also at around that time Martin had an all hands meeting, and said, "I've been informed that I'm no longer the president." It also came out later that he was no longer an employee. Later that day, the staff quickly put together a big farewell party for him in the big open bay area of the building to give him a good send off. So, yeah, it was uncertain times, and I was just afraid I'd get laid off, and I wanted to get out of there before something like that happened.
ZIERLER: I guess you never know if you would've been.
BROOKS: I'm pretty sure I would've been.
BROOKS: Developing a new car is really hard. You can't have a very responsible position and be there only two days a week. It's hard to make that work. It just made sense to leave.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the renewable energy program at Google. Where did it come from? Who started that?
BROOKS: [pause] Well, I'm not exactly sure. I think Larry and Sergey had a significant role in that because they were looking to try to make big step changes in several fields, not limited to computing.
ZIERLER: Google's already in change-the-world mode, at this point?
BROOKS: Our program was under Google.org. Key staff included Bill Weihl, who was previously an MIT computer science professor. He was the head of our group. And we had Dan Reicher, who was a former deputy secretary of energy in the Clinton administration. So, they were just getting started putting together this RE<C group when I got in. I was probably the fourth or fifth member, and they wanted to hire maybe twelve or fifteen people total. I think the idea was that this team is going to form, and then they're going to spend some time to go learn about renewable generation, and where there's maybe an opportunity to make some big leaps in technology and cost of energy. With a pretty wide leash, we could go and try all kinds of things. One of the first things our small team was working on was hiring and we interviewed a lot of people. Google's hiring process is very formal in terms of how the documentation is done, and how the phone screens are done. It was a good process. So, that was a fair amount of time, just doing that. Alec Proudfoot was on the RE<C team and he was also involved in another Google initiative called RechargeIT, which was basically doing projects to support plug-in cars. They had made a small fleet of Priuses with extra battery packs to turn them into plug-in hybrids. This was before the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid came out. They had this fleet of Priuses with a solar—
They made a parking area with a solar array on top. Employees could check out the Priuses. The RE<C team was tasked to come up with a major signature project to focus on, with the primary goal of producing renewable renewable energy cheaper than coal-based energy. So we did a lot of research, and people were free to just go and look at all kinds of things. We finally settled on a new concept of solar-powered gas turbine energy generation, which was a new concept and had never been done. Solar cells were expensive then – but we didn't properly predict the rapid drop in solar cell pricing.
ZIERLER: China was not yet manufacturing solar panels?
BROOKS: They were but not in the quantity that's happening now. The cost goal we were trying to get to I think has now been achieved with solar power. Probably solar energy is cheaper than coal by now, I think, but I'm not sure.
ZIERLER: But that wasn't the case then?
BROOKS: That was not the case at all. The idea was that we were going to essentially make a gas turbine engine run on the heat of concentrated solar energy. You have to have hundreds of heliostats all aiming reflected sunlight at a solar receiver that's hopefully quite small and doesn't let too much heat back out, and then that heat has to get transferred to air then to run on a gas turbine. It was a complicated project, but we got pretty far along on the design, and had some vendors lined up for the gas turbine parts. We were going to try to make a demo system, but then [laugh] when I was on vacation with my family in Turkey in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul –
It's a gigantic place – and we were just looking at all these things for sale in all the stalls. Then out of the blue we meet my boss from Google, right there next to me! [laugh] What's the chances of that? We all had a laugh. But then when I got back home, I found out the news that our project had been canceled. He may or may not have known about it at the time. It was just a chance encounter. He wasn't there to try to find me or anything. He was there on vacation with his wife. We were given time to write up descriptions of our projects to capture what we had done. The solar gas turbine project details files are still online at Google here and here.
ZIERLER: Did Google get out of the alternative energy business at that point or—?
BROOKS: Yeah, I think probably they did because progress in reducing the cost of renewable energy had been pretty fast, and it's eclipsed what our targets were.
ZIERLER: You mean market forces had just come to that point on its own?
BROOKS: Yeah. It was like, OK, well, if what you're aiming for is no better than what the market is going to soon deliver, then we don't really—it doesn't make sense for us to try to be in that role, which made sense to me. But one of the good things about working for Google is that they would also let you work on other things that you thought would be useful to Google.
ZIERLER: Was this sort of like a basic science environment where you could do things that were not necessarily relevant to the bottom line?
BROOKS: Well, yes, I wouldn't necessarily say basic science. It was maybe applied engineering and, ideally, it has something to do with Google's capabilities in the compute area and communications. One of the things I worked on at Google was integrating plug-in vehicles with the grid in an intelligent way, sometimes called vehicle-to-grid or smart charging especially. At Google, we managed to get a little bit further because we had people at Google that understood how to communicate with 100,000 cars or more all at once. That, to me, sounds hard. But if you're at Google, people say, "Yeah, we can do that." [laugh] We ended up doing a demonstration project. We made software simulations of a large number of electric cars, with each car having internet connectivity. We also created the back office control algorithms that treated the connected cars as a fast-acting variable power resource. We showed that you could communicate with a large number of cars at a very low latency.
ZIERLER: What's the value of communicating with so many cars at once?
BROOKS: If they're on charge, then you can customize each car's charge rate - the amount of kilowatts drawn - in real time. In that way, you can do things like regulate the grid frequency. That's a service that gets paid for right now. It's called grid frequency regulation. So, you could have cars that are on charge perform a grid function that has value, or you can have—like what I said before, you could avoid the need to curtail renewable generation, by starting charging on cars as needed to suck up all of the excess renewable power that is being generated. That seems to me to be low-hanging fruit, and I don't understand why utilities can't get there yet. I'll send you—we wrote an article called Demand Dispatch, which is the concept of dispatching demand (or load). It was published in IEEE Power and Energy Magazine. [Link to full article at the end.]
You often hear about demand response, which you think of as turning off a load. But demand dispatch is turning on a load when more load is needed, say to prevent curtailment of renewable generation. The idea is that you have these electric cars that are sitting for something like 22 hours a day, not being driven. If they can be connected up to the grid for a lot of that time, maybe you can do something useful with those cars to increase renewable generation and /or provide a grid frequency regulation function.
ZIERLER: Did you ever think that there was some obvious cross-over partnership between Tesla and Google, given that you need a large fleet of electric vehicles—
ZIERLER: —for this to be a viable program?
BROOKS: No, because it would have to be a standards-based system. And, also, Tesla wasn't that big at that point. No, it was—
ZIERLER: But it was the only game in town, essentially. Even though—
ZIERLER: —it wasn't big, there was no one else.
BROOKS: But we weren't interested quite so much in showing that you could do it with real cars because we were sure that you could do it, just like we were sure the software on the Google side was feasible – and that you know you can do it. So, it's really convincing people that have some ability to move it forward. So because we were Google, we had fairly interesting visitors. Steve Chu came and visited once, and we pitched him on these ideas. He was secretary of energy, I think.
ZIERLER: He became secretary of energy for Obama in 2009.
BROOKS: Yeah. So, I made a presentation to him on these ideas. Then we had the chairman of FERC visit, and I pitched him on it as well. Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet, was at Google then, and came to one of these presentations. During my presentation he got into an argument with me about some technical details. My boss jumped in and defended my position.
You have a big microphone when you work for a company like Google. So, yeah, it was possible to get to get big ideas in front of important people, and plant some seeds that maybe can trickle down from higher levels.
ZIERLER: Now, all this time, you were still commuting?
BROOKS: Yeah, yeah, commuting with Google was a little bit easier because they provided a Google apartment for me when I was there. [laugh]
ZIERLER: A Google apartment. [laugh]
BROOKS: They had everything, yeah, and three meals a day, of course, of the best food you've ever had. [laugh] It was amazing. I also got to use an old Toyota Rav4 EV to get around when I was there. Then another thing that was fun about Google is I got to live through the introduction of Android phones from the very, very beginning. I saw one first when it was still a secret, and then they launched it. Every Google employee got one. Remember that one? It was like a slider phone. It had a little screen that slid up.
ZIERLER: Sure, I had one with the keyboard that came out.
BROOKS: Well I still have mine, the trouble now is that I forgot my screen code. You had to make your finger go in this pattern on the screen and now I don't remember my pattern.
ZIERLER: Then in 2011, once again, you returned to AeroVironment.
BROOKS: Yeah, that's because Google canceled our project.
ZIERLER: But you could've stayed on with the other stuff you were doing, or was that not taking up enough of your time?
BROOKS: No, I would have to have had a home department. There was a thing called Google X, which was run by Astro Teller. But they did some wild stuff, and I was thinking of trying to get a job there.
ZIERLER: That would've been an internal transfer, or it would've been a different—
BROOKS: Yeah, I think so.
BROOKS: Another thing I looked at was Google Ventures, or GV. This was Google's capital arm. The last year I was at Google, I got called in on several things relating to either automotive or other things where they had people come in pitching investment in their companies. Google Ventures wanted somebody with a technical bent to vet what these companies were pitching, and find the holes in it. So, I could do that pretty well. [laugh] That was a fun thing just to do on the side at Google. But, no, I looked at all the possibilities, and there were things I potentially could've done. But, basically, they say, "Your project is canceled. Take the next month or two to see if you can find another part of Google you could get a job in." [laugh]
ZIERLER: Alec, I'm just curious. The idea that Google would've been satisfied with where the market was naturally, why would the Google approach not have been, "Well, let's not be passive. Let's make the market even better than where it is, pushing alternative energy even beyond current capabilities"?
BROOKS: But I think they looked at what we were doing, and said, "You're going to be surpassed by the market, and you haven't even really started the actual hardware part of it yet." It made sense. I didn't disagree with their take on it. Also, the commuting back and forth was...
ZIERLER: That was getting old?
BROOKS: It was getting old. Right around that time - it was fortuitous - I had participated in the 40th anniversary celebration of AeroVironment– at an all-hands meeting where I gave a talk about some of the history of AeroVironment from the times that I was there before. Then not long after that, I got a call from the president of AeroVironment, and he asked me if I might consider coming back to AeroVironment from Google. [laugh] So, that was good timing, and so I said, "OK, I'll consider that."
ZIERLER: Who was the president at that time?
BROOKS: Tim Conver. When I went back they gave me a title of something like chief technology officer of efficient energy systems or something, and so I didn't have direct reports, which was good. I was kind of in a senior technologist position. That was good. I lasted there for several more years.
ZIERLER: Did this position represent a strategic shift for AeroVironment—
ZIERLER: —in terms of what they were doing?
BROOKS: No. I think what happened is they were working on EV charging, and they were trying to get a product line together. I was interested in that but I was interested in it from the smart charging part of it, which generally required communications in the charging station so that you could control it. I had a hard time getting AeroVironment interested in that. Many of the product managers for EV charging didn't drive EVs and they didn't see the same vision that I had for smart networked charging. So, we clashed on some of those things. I organized some collaboration with a company called eMotorWerks up in the Bay Area, a tiny startup. They were making charging stations with wireless communications, with Wi-Fi basically. I got them to buy a bunch of AeroVironment charging stations, so they could put their communications controller into it. They bought a whole bunch of these AeroVironment stations because their station was not UL-listed, and they were having trouble selling it to some customers. But AeroVironment's was UL-listed, so that worked out well.
But eventually AeroVironment decided to get out of the EV charging business and they reached a deal to sell out that whole part of the company. So, the sale eliminated my position, basically. [laugh] After that –I liked what eMotorWerks was doing with smart charging, and they were coming closer to these things that I was interested in. So, I got a job there – back in the Bay Area again! [laugh] That got tiring pretty soon too.
ZIERLER: Alec, when you rejoined AeroVironment in December 2011—thinking about charging stations—obviously at this point, Tesla did not have a chokehold, essentially, on the infrastructure of charging. That was still a ways off at that point.
BROOKS: Well, I wouldn't say they have a chokehold on it now. They went off in a different direction than the SAE charging standards. They have a—
BROOKS: Well, it's proprietary and it's nonstandard. It's in all US Teslas. If you have a Tesla, there are a lot of charging stations that work with Teslas, both Tesla stations and standards based stations using adapters. But there are a lot of non-Tesla cars out there that don't work with Tesla charging stations.
ZIERLER: That's what I would—you would not call that a chokehold?
BROOKS: Well, it's—
ZIERLER: It's imbalanced, for sure.
BROOKS: Yeah, it's imbalanced. The interesting thing is in Europe, there are a couple of countries that didn't allow Tesla to sell cars that used a nonstandard charger interface. They said, "No, you have to have this, and this is law. You have to have this standard interface." The US standard was similar to the European one, but they had different plug configurations between Europe and the US. But, anyway, if you buy a Tesla Model S in those countries now, it has the European standard connector. They don't have this problem in much of Europe. They're all on the same connector. I don't know what's going to happen in the US.
ZIERLER: Now, would it have been in AeroVironment's interest for Tesla not to have gone proprietary in the United States? Were you trying to prevent that, or was that not a consideration at AeroVironment?
BROOKS: Not much of a consideration. Tesla was already far ahead of where AeroVironment was. I was not on board with AeroVironment's overall approach on charging. Back then, there was the Tesla standard. But then there was a fast-charging standard Nissan had called CHAdeMO. Then there was a third one called the SAE. The Nissan Leaf had the CHAdeMO. Now, CHAdeMO's kind of dead now in the US. It's not really happening. But that's what AeroVironment put a lot of money into with developing a high-powered CHAdeMO charger, which never really made sense to me. Things are stabilizing I think right now.
ZIERLER: Now, when your position was eliminated at AeroVironment, what might that tell us about AeroVironment's overall strategic direction circa 2017?
BROOKS: Well, it was pretty clear. They were selling off all of the EV charging and EV Battery test equipment part of the business to Webasto, and pretty much what was left over was the military side in Simi Valley. They pretty much became a pure defense contractor at that point. That's where it ended up.
ZIERLER: When your job was eliminated, did you look at eMotorWerks as your next job, or were you thinking about retiring at this point, and becoming a consultant anyway?
ZIERLER: You weren't ready to retire in 2017?
BROOKS: I think I was close, but I liked the kind of things that eMotorWerks was trying to do. I knew their president from the work he had done with me at AeroVironment. So, I asked him if I could have a job there. He said, "Yeah, come on over." [laugh] They were truly like a Silicon Valley startup company.
ZIERLER: Who started it? What's the story?
BROOKS: Val Miftakhov started it. He used to have a little logo that said EMW, and he got sued by BMW because it was too close.
ZIERLER: Plus the "Werks" spelled with an "E" is very German-looking. [laugh]
BROOKS: Yeah, exactly. The first time I went up there as an employee, I saw that it was clearly a small startup operation. One thing they did that AeroVironment didn't do was put Wi-Fi in their charging stations. I still use their station at my house. I use it because it has Wi-Fi, and it tells me the energy delivered to the car, and that kind of thing. They managed to get a lot of attention, and they eventually sold the company to Enel, which is a big Italian-based energy company. They sold the company for something like 100 million dollars. It wasn't that old of a company. It's very Silicon Valley how you rise fast and you sell [laugh] before reality sinks in. AeroVironment ended up selling their mature business that I was the chief technology officer of for something like $35 million to Webasto, which is a German company.
ZIERLER: Are they still around?
BROOKS: Which one?
BROOKS: Well, no, because they sold the company to—well, yes, it's around, but it's owned by Enel.
ZIERLER: Well, Alec, we've worked right up to the present. So, I think for the last part of our talk, to wrap all of these great conversations up, I want to ask a few broadly retrospective questions about your career, and then we'll then look into the future because, obviously, so much of this is future-oriented. So, one, an easy question: what's your favorite vehicle? You've worked on so many different kinds of ways to get around. What's your favorite vehicle, both from an engineering perspective and from a fun perspective?
BROOKS: [pause] Well, you mean like a car-type vehicle?
ZIERLER: Car, bike, plane. You've done so many different kinds of things.
BROOKS: [pause] Your favorite vehicle changes, I guess, as you grow because you get exposed to new things. When I was—In 1983, my favorite vehicle was a Honda Prelude. [laugh]
BROOKS: It was a brand-new version at that time. I bought one and I drove it for a long time. I really liked that car. Then another car I really liked was the first-generation Toyota Prius. That was a watershed change of paradigm - an engine that could just turn on and off quietly and quickly hundreds of times per trip, and no big deal. Because it used to be you turned the key, and your starter engaged and the engine went ra-ra-ra, and it starts up and then—
ZIERLER: It stays on until you turn it off.
BROOKS: Yeah. You would never think of turning the engine off at a stop light, right? The Prius just, yeah, OK, the engine's going to stop, and then the engine starts up as soon as you put your foot on the gas. That was just a real game-changer to me that you could do that.
I'm pretty happy with my Chevy Bolt right now. I think they did quite an expert job in packaging, energy efficiency, and performance. It's a bit smaller than what some people want. But the interior volume and performance is very good, so I'm very happy with that right now. With the new battery pack I have after the recall, I get over 300 miles on a charge.
ZIERLER: What stands out in your memory as the most difficult engineering problem you've come up against?
BROOKS: I would say, it was the Global Observer hydrogen airplane. An airplane like that hadn't been done before, and there was a lot of invention needed to have a power system that would work at that altitude, and it had to store a lot of liquid hydrogen in a very lightweight tank. The tank had to be insulated really well so that the hydrogen didn't boil off too quickly. The highly turbocharged hydrogen engine was also quite a challenge to develop.
But there have been plenty of other really difficult projects too.
The Sunraycer and the Impact were probably the most important projects I worked on because they were on the path to the modern electric car. And they were really hard projects, to a large extent because of the schedules that we had to meet. We had to get vehicles ready for a race or to the auto show by certain dates that weren't very far off. We did really well on those cars. We had a great team, and we generally had enough money which was pretty important. [laugh] Knowing the right people for the teams was key. These have included the talented people from AeroVironment, many with experience with Paul MacCready's human powered airplanes, and Alan Cocconi and Dave Sivertsen, who I knew from Caltech, Wally Rippel who I knew of because of his electric car race, and Taras Kiceniuk Jr., my friend starting from middle school and a Caltech grad. He is a famous hang-glider pilot and designer— starting from when he was in high school.
I've had a really interesting career, and lots of variation too. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Alec, as you mentioned, of course, we're talking because this is for the Caltech Heritage Project. What is it about Caltech, do you think, that makes Caltech such an important component to all of these stories, all of these businesses, all of these engineering achievements, all the people that came from Caltech? What is it about Caltech?
BROOKS: [pause] Well, I think that Caltech draws people here who are often unusually talented, and can often be trailblazers in a small area or in multiple areas. That has been my experience working with many Caltech grads throughout my career. Caltech grads have been pivotal to all of the major projects of my career.
The tZero Legacy
ZIERLER: Maybe there's a sense of adventure that really gets nurtured here?
BROOKS: [pause] I don't know if I would say that necessarily. [laugh] When you think about it, that's a—you could look at it from different aspects, I mean, as a grad student and undergrad are quite different, I think.
BROOKS: My thesis advisor here at Caltech was somebody who was new to Caltech the same year that I was new to Caltech, so we were both starting here at the same time. So, he didn't have any built-up Caltech experience at the time. My father was a Caltech professor of Environmental Engineering Science at the time (now emeritus). I was a civil engineering major even though what I did my research on was not really civil engineering. Other than my advisor, pretty much all of my professors knew my father [laugh], some for decades.
ZIERLER: Alec, looking back on all of the technological developments that you were both a part of and you witnessed, do you tend to look at advances as more incremental or more revolutionary? In other words, bit by bit by bit, things get better, stronger, faster, or are there periods of latency where there's not much going on, and then there's some revolution that happens that results in a paradigm shift?
BROOKS: [pause] I think it obviously depends on what kind of field you're talking about. But I think there's certainly a paradigm shift, I think, in this year and what we expect future cars are going to be. It has just astonished me how fast the automakers have come on board with electric cars. Toyota's now announcing something like 20 new electric vehicle models in the next few years. It's just astounding. Back when I was at AC Propulsion, we were fighting Toyota because they were all hybrid and all gasoline still, and didn't want to even consider EVs. [laugh] So, that's a big change. [pause] So, being interested in electric cars for most of my life, really, it's really gratifying to see it finally taking off. At AC Propulsion, we had the tagline:
"Dedicated to making electric vehicles that people want to drive"
Our vision was that you would want to have an EV because it drives better.
ZIERLER: Fun is more of a selling point than saving the environment?
BROOKS: Yeah. Well, also, it doesn't necessarily have to be fun but just like how smooth it is or how quiet it is or how much control you're getting. It's just—
ZIERLER: It has to be a better driving experience.
BROOKS: The driving experience IS better, and it obviously does open up performance that, as Tesla has shown, they can make a car that out-accelerates every single gas-powered car available.
ZIERLER: Well, the tzero did that. You don't even need Tesla to do that.
BROOKS: Well, no, the tzero was 0 to 60 in 3.6 seconds, and Tesla now has two seconds. That's almost double the acceleration. That's phenomenal, but the difference is irrelevant in real world driving.
BROOKS: But that's a very small fraction of people that would pay extra for that. [laugh] My Bolt accelerates pretty fast, and I don't feel like I need faster acceleration. [laugh] [pause] I think I can pretty clearly trace in my mind the work we were doing back at AC Propulsion leading directly to Tesla, or indirectly, but pretty directly to Tesla Motors. Tesla took it from there, and became the technology giant of the world on this thing right now, and has forced all other car companies to essentially switch their product portfolios to EVs over the next decade to electric. It is a great feeling to have been part of that transition. I think it may not have happened without what we did at AC Propulsion.
ZIERLER Finally, Alec, looking to the future, in light of the fact that all of these car companies are looking to make the switch, with all of your historical perspective, what are going to be the main challenges for all the car companies to get there?
BROOKS: [pause] I don't know if there's huge challenges. I think they have to decide whether they're going to acquire key technologies from component groups or suppliers, or whether they're going to, like Tesla, be very skilled in the real core drivetrain elements of the car. What Tesla is doing is more efficient; probably it's more weight-efficient because they design everything from scratch. Whereas some other car companies may want to just buy off-the-shelf—or not off-the-shelf but go to a third party, and have something that's maybe customized to them but it's not pushing the envelope. But you can do reasonably well that way. So, we'll see how it goes. But I think if you have core competency in electric drives, like Tesla does, you can stay ahead perhaps. But I think the other companies are working on innovations or ways to differentiate themselves, and so we'll see how it goes. A lot of them are picking acceleration as a differentiator to try to be faster than the next guy. But it looks like electric pickup trucks are going to be faster than gasoline pickup trucks [laugh] or diesel.
One of my pet peeves is that cars seem to be getting louder. I just hear so many loud cars and trucks these days, and people are paying money to make their cars louder. Why is that? [laugh] Are the people that are clinging to their gas-powered cars going to keep making them louder? Are they going to add louder exhausts because they can't out-drag EVs? [laugh] What are they going to do?
ZIERLER: Well, Alec, on that note, I'd like to thank you for spending all this time with me—
BROOKS: I enjoyed all of it.
ZIERLER: —and even more importantly, for really spearheading this project, for connecting me with Dave and Wally and Alan. Altogether, it's just, again, it's this amazing Caltech connection that has led to this world-changing technology. So, I want to thank you so much.
BROOKS: OK, thank you.
Articles by Alec Brooks
GM Sunraycer Operations Guide
Integration of Electric Drive Vehicles with the Electric Power Grid -- A New Value Stream
Opinion: EV1 Recall
Final Report: Vehicle-to-Grid Demonstration Project: Grid Regulation Ancillary Service with a Battery Electric Vehicle
Energy Usage Considerations of Electric Drive Vehicles
Vehicle Charging as a Source of Grid Frequency Regulation
The tzero Electric Sports Car – How Electric Vehicles Can Achieve Both High Performance and High Efficiency
Demand Dispatch: Using Real-Time Control of Demand to Help Balance Generation and Load (Ⓒ IEEE, Article provided here with permission from IEEE)
Perspectives on Fuel Cell and Battery Electric Vehicles
Real Time Applications for Smart Charging
Memos Between Aerovironment and GM Advanced Concepts Center
Memo from Brooks and MacCready to Wilson on EV Design, June 1988
More information on the tzero from AC Propulsion
AC Propulsion press release announcing Lithium Ion tzero prototype Sept 2003
Alec Brooks' post on Tesla Motors Blog, Feb 2008
Business Insider article explaining role of tzero in Tesla's formation
Plug in, Charge Up, Drive Off
Images on this page:
- EV Charging Infrastructure
- Surveying the EV Market
- The Multiple Benefits of EVs
- Caltech Childhood Roots
- Transient Flows Research
- Prototyping the Sunraycer
- Solar Race Victory and General Motors
- The GM EV From Concept to Classic
- AC Propulsion and a New EV Approach
- The Origins of Tesla
- From Tesla to Google
- The tZero Legacy