President Emeritus; Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics, Emeritus
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
January 20, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Friday, January 20, 2022. I am delighted to be here with Dr. Thomas E. Everhart. Dr. Everhart, of course, is the President, Emeritus and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics, Emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology. Tom, it's great to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me.
THOMAS EVERHART: Good to be with you.
ZIERLER: What I'd like to do today is engage with you in the story of your connection to the creation of electric cars. Let's take that back to your earliest memory of when you started to think about the possibility of creating an electric vehicle.
EVERHART: I think the impetus for that came in part from Paul MacCready, who was the founder and head of AeroVironment and very instrumental in developing the Sunraycer, which has had books written about it, and won the first solar car race across Australia by over a day, as I recall. And Paul and AeroVironment were very good at optimizing, scientifically and engineering-wise, the mechanics and physics of essentially pacesetting vehicles and technologies, the Gossamer Albatross, all sorts of things that set world records. Paul came to this from being a champion sail plane enthusiast when he was in graduate school, then afterwards, when he was doing his PhD at Caltech. He continued to try to optimize things.
AeroVironment, which I visited, was a fascinating technical place because they tended to pose very difficult questions engineering-wise, then use very unconventional and rapid ways of testing and solving them. I have never been in a place that was so fast in testing out ideas as AeroVironment was. That meant that they could discard the bad ideas rather quickly and build on the good ideas over time. They did that with the Sunraycer. It was a very aerodynamic vehicle. As I recall, it had solar panels across its roof to collect the maximum amount of sunlight, had very high-pressure, low rolling-resistance tires. They optimized its weight, made it as low as possible. It totally dominated that race, winning it by over a day from the northern coast of Australia to the southern coast. From that came the idea, "If you can do it with solar electricity, why can't you do it with regular electricity?"
They developed something called the Impact. And by then, I think General Motors had taken some interest and perhaps provided some funding. Other people would know those details better than I. But I should digress for a moment and say I had been involved with General Motors for probably about six or seven years before I got to Caltech. When I was at Cornell, I was asked to be on their science advisory committee, and later I chaired that committee and spent I think nine years as either a member or chairman of the General Motors science advisory committee. I therefore interacted with the top people in General Motors on topics of engineering and scientific relevance to the corporation. We introduced several ideas, which they adopted. I won't go into those now. But I think that by pushing the Sunraycer, I had, therefore, some credibility with General Motors.
When I went off the science advisory committee, I was asked by Roger Smith to be on the board of directors, succeeding the scientist who was leaving at the time, Charles Townes, a Nobel laureate, who I incidentally succeeded in one or two other advisory positions in the course of my career. Charlie was a great guy who happened to be a member of the Caltech board of trustees when I was selected to be president of Caltech. In any case, the Sunraycer follow-on, the Impact, gained a great deal of interest at General Motors, and it was a sort of one-of type vehicle, establishing what could be done but not necessarily what could be produced commercially. Therefore, General Motors wanted to build something that could be replicated commercially and turn a profit, which is part of what a for-profit corporation attempts to do.
I think the problem with the electric car, the EV1, as it eventually came to be known, was that it threatened the internal combustion engine, and it threatened the knowledge of all those engineers and mechanical people who were involved with the internal combustion engine cars that General Motors and the rest of the industry were producing, and therefore there was a great deal of resistance to doing something that would obviate and do away with all this stored knowledge that had been collected over the years. And that was not appreciated internally or externally so much at the time. Other excuses were used. That was not the reason given, there were other reasons given why electric cars wouldn't be viable long term, no one would want them, they'd cost too much, etc., without taking into account the fact that they could, with volume production, be made cheaper, batteries could be developed, and so on.
The first electric car, the EV1, had lead acid batteries, which is really a very bad choice, but given the battery technology at the time, it was possibly the only choice. I think that later on, the evolution of Tesla, for example, showed that people could throw away all those old ideas and come up with new ideas. Certainly, a modern electric car has far fewer moving parts, is far simpler to build and operate, and is much more convenient to use with computerization than the old internal combustion engine vehicle, which had so many different things you had to control. General Motors's leadership was primarily people from finance who didn't know enough about the technology of either internal combustion engines or electric cars to understand that you could get over some of these problems in time. When I was on the board, I was sort of the champion of the electric car, and once they developed the EV1, I said, "You have all the electronics you need. Now, all you have to do is couple them with the internal combustion engine, and you have a hybrid. You can lead the world in hybrids." Not too long after that, Toyota came out with the Prius, which has been a very successful hybrid.
General Motors was not willing to take that extra step because of what was going on inside. I think their arguments given in the literature, "You'd threaten the suppliers, you'd threaten the whole infrastructure"–but that's how progress is made, particularly in electronics. That was at a time when Hewlett-Packard was making much of its money with new products that had been introduced in the last year or so. The difference between how you made money commercializing electronics and commercializing internal combustion vehicles was really very different because there was an awful lot of pre-planning. It took about five years from concept to commercial production of internal combustion vehicles at that time. The change to electronics could be accomplished in months, or at most, a year.
All you had to do was look at the advent of the electric calculator, the transistor radio, how fast there came into being all sorts of electronic instruments, to see that difference. And that was not appreciated by the mechanical engineers or management of General Motors at the time. Anyway, the EV1 became a very successful product for those who were successful enough to get one. It had a cult following, including two or three members of the Caltech board of trustees who were congratulating me that General Motors had come out with such a novel product, then totally disappointed when General Motors decided to destroy them all, which was after I left the board, actually. I did not know of that decision until much later.
ZIERLER: If we could go back to Paul MacCready, if you engaged with him on this level, what were his motivations with the Sunraycer project? What was he looking to accomplish?
EVERHART: Paul was trying to show you could get maximum performance and break all sorts of world records by using technology to its ultimate end. He built a human-powered aircraft that would fly across the English Channel, the first to ever do so. Paul developed several other vehicles. This was his passion. That's really why he founded AeroVironment. He lived in Pasadena, he was close to Caltech. I got to know him as an alumnus, but I also got to know him through his relationship with General Motors. We would talk with each other. He was the one who came to me and said, "This fellow is doing a movie on the electric car, Who Killed the Electric Car? You have a unique knowledge of how it developed, so you might want to talk to him." I allowed him to interview me and basically was trying to present to him why General Motors made some of the decisions they made, even though I thought they were bad decisions. That's why I have a bit piece in that film. A former director of a corporation normally doesn't give that sort of an interview, but I thought it was fairly important because of the nature of the development of the electric car to do so, and I did.
ZIERLER: I'm curious if you were following developments in 1967 and '68 when Wally Rippel proposed to have this electric car race cross-country against MIT.
EVERHART: I had no knowledge of that when I got to Caltech. I met Wally and was told about that, but it was all by hindsight. I had no knowledge of it.
ZIERLER: Did you have a sense that this was something that Caltech students were interested in?
EVERHART: Yeah, Caltech students are interested in doing all sorts of interesting things. It's not at all surprising that they would be interested in doing that sort of thing. And as you probably know, an awful lot of good ideas come to fruition when the technology is right. The technology wasn't quite right then. Even when the first electric car was developed, an awful lot of advances had been made from the time Wally did that electric car many years earlier. But batteries were too heavy. Caltech students couldn't develop very, very lightweight metallic or plastic frames for cars. There were all sorts of things that would hold them back. That was true even after I left Caltech, where the students tried to build an autonomous vehicle that would go all the way from California to Las Vegas in response to a DARPA challenge. That was a very tough challenge. They tried hard. They did not win. It's the sort of thing I think Caltech students are very good at trying to do, the impossible, and they sometimes succeed.
ZIERLER: I'm curious if you saw the environmental aspect at play as well in the sense that smog was a real issue in Pasadena, and there was the conclusion, of course, that auto combustion was contributing to the smog.
EVERHART: I'm sure that was part of it. As you probably know, the person who understood that best was a research associate at Caltech. Arnold Beckman was the one who realized that and pushed hard on environmental aspects as a person who ran an environmental company. These connections were known, but that doesn't mean it's possible economically to win until you have the right technology. And the right technology includes materials science, electronics, computers, etc. In the 60s, integrated circuits were in their infancy. Computers were great, big things that filled rooms. One of the amazing things to me in going to Caltech is the Voyagers, which have computers in them, of the vintage of when they were launched and have been reprogrammed in traveling between one planet to the next planet in order to get them to function much better. But they're still extremely rudimentary computers. Your cell phone is so much more powerful, there's no comparison. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: Let's talk about your affiliation with the Hughes Research Laboratories and their connection to this story.
EVERHART: I have a very long connection with Hughes Research Labs. When I got my bachelor's degree, I went to work at Hughes as a master of science co-op student, and I got my master's degree at UCLA while I was working at Hughes, 25 hours a week during the work year, and full-time during summers and vacations. I had a great time there. I worked with very excellent people in the research labs. Probably got more education at Hughes than at UCLA, but it was a very different education. I worked with very modern equipment there. Si Ramo and Dean Wooldridge were the two heads of Hughes when I first got there. They left a few months later and formed the Ramo-Wooldridge Division of Thompson Products, which later became TRW. I got to know of a lot of very impressive people. Hughes had very good scientists, and they were bringing in people from all over the world to give lectures.
I was privileged, as a member of the technical staff, to be able to attend some of those lectures, so I was able to learn a lot about what was really the most modern aspects of science and engineering while at Hughes. It's like being at a good university in that respect. Later on, when I was at Berkeley, I was asked to come down and interact at Hughes as a consultant and was able to interact with their electron beam program, which was led, at the time, by Edward Wolf. In order to learn about electron beams, he actually came up to Berkeley and spent about three months one summer in my lab, working on scanning electron microscopes and getting a real feel for these instruments, then went back to Hughes and headed up the program. I consulted on that program. We had a very long term relationship since that time.
Also, when I was a master of science student, one of the persons who was hired–we were really in a space crunch, and he came to work on traveling-wave tubes–was Malcolm Currie, who'd done his PhD with Whinnery at the University of California, Berkeley. He and I shared an office for a while, then a third person came in shortly before I went off to Cambridge for a PhD degree. Malcolm eventually became the CEO of Hughes. In some sense, through very good fortune, I just happened to know some of the people who made things work at Hughes. I had worked in the electron tube lab with a fellow named George Smith, who became director of the research labs. These were people I had both a social and professional scientific engineering interactions with when I was a master's student. I certainly developed a healthy respect for them, and I gather it was mutual.
ZIERLER: What do you see as the connection between Hughes and eventually GM's interest in working on electric vehicles?
EVERHART: Well, GM had some electronics they manufactured for automobiles, I think in Kokomo, Indiana, but they had no significant research capacity in the same sense that Hughes did. And when Hughes came up for sale, GM got interested in it. They asked a committee chaired by Lew Allen, who was the director of JPL at the time, former general in the US Air Force at one time, to chair a committee, which was composed of Bob Cannon, who was head of their science advisory committee, and me. The three of us actually spent about two weeks interviewing people at Hughes for General Motors and talking with them at the same time people at General Motors were talking and trying to assess their management abilities. In the end, General Motors bought Hughes, installed Bud Whelon as the head of Hughes, and installed Mike Smith as the chief financial officer, so they would have a good financial knowledge of what was going on at Hughes. Mal Currie became head of the General Motors electronics in Indiana. They were trying to integrate the two.
I was not privy to exactly how all that worked for a while because at that time, I was not in Southern California. I think the cultures at General Motors and Hughes were different. One was a defense contractor, and the other was a commercial company which could do defense work if necessary, but it wasn't their be-all and end-all. It took a while for them to be able to adjust to each other. Eventually, Bud Whelon resigned from Hughes, Mal Currie became the CEO of Hughes, and I think eventually, Hughes came up for sale by General Motors. Part of it was bought by Raytheon, part of it was standalone. The research labs became sort of a tripartite thing. The old Hughes essentially was split up and went away.
ZIERLER: When Hughes Aircraft was purchased by GM in 1985, what did that mean for Hughes Research Laboratories? Did that go en masse with GM as well?
EVERHART: I think it did originally, then General Motors had their own research labs. I don't know what the relationships were at that time. I was on the science advisory committee of General Motors in 1985, but not heavily involved with any of the administrative interactions at General Motors. George Smith may have been head of the research labs for a while, then other people came in to head it up. As I said, it became financed by three different groups. One was General Motors, one was Raytheon, when they bought the missiles part of Hughes, and I forget the third.
ZIERLER: The purchase in 1985, was anyone at GM thinking about electric cars? Was that part of the equation at all in the acquisition of Hughes?
EVERHART: I don't think so. But I don't know. I was not familiar with the thinking of top people at GM at the time. Roger Smith, I think, was the chairman at the time, and purchasing Hughes was a pretty gutsy move. Later on, he became the champion of the electric car, which is why it got as far as it did within General Motors. He was more of a visionary than some of the people who followed him. But it never really gained a huge traction at General Motors, and people had tried to move General Motors away from the electric car for a whole variety of reasons, which are discussed in some of the literature that evolved at that time, in a sense. I wasn't close enough to what was going on in the ranks of General Motors to have a more definitive answer than I've already given you.
ZIERLER: I'm curious about the timing, the acquisition in 1985, and the release in 1990 of the Impact electric concept car. In what ways did the acquisition of Hughes, if at all, speed up the process by which GM was able to release the Impact in 1990?
EVERHART: I think, quite frankly, that Paul MacCready at AeroVironment had probably more influence on the release of the Impact than Hughes. But again, I can't say that for certain because I wasn't close enough to it.
ZIERLER: What about from a technical level, not in terms of the personality and motivations? At a technical level, would Hughes have added a dimension to GM's capabilities to create the Impact concept?
EVERHART: I think so. I think you've already talked with some persons who would have a better sense of that.
ZIERLER: Around this time, in the late 1980s, what boards did you sit on that might've given you a window into the thinking of either Hughes or GM?
EVERHART: The first board I ever sat on was the General Motors board, and that was, I think, 1989. That was when I was first being introduced to board service. I'd been president at Caltech for a year or so. I'd rotated off of the General Motors science advisory committee. I think I was on it from '80 to '89. When I first went on the General Motors board, there wasn't a lot of discussion at the board level about electric cars, that came a little bit later.
ZIERLER: Were you personally excited about this? Did you find this to be an exciting development, that a major corporation like GM would dip its toe into the electric car market?
EVERHART: Absolutely. I think what I didn't realize at the time was how hidebound great, big organizations are. General Motors was probably the largest, in terms of employees, private organization in the United States, being exceeded in size only by the US government. Large organizations are pretty conservative. If you dig down two or three levels, they're pretty conservative.
ZIERLER: As an engineer with expertise in these areas, what did you think about the feasibility of mass production of an electric car? The tzero [electric vehicle made by AC Propulsion] is one thing, but for GM and what we're aiming for, did you see that differently, and did they have different challenges?
EVERHART: Let me tell you of two instances that happened before I was on the board, when I was on the science advisory committee. First, on a tour I was shown a brand-new car coming out, may have been a Cadillac, Oldsmobile, or Buick, but a big car with a great, big spare tire right in the center of the trunk, exactly where it would interfere with any suitcase that anybody would want to put in that car. I was being shown it by a young engineer, so I asked him why in the world they'd put a big spare tire in the middle of the trunk. He said, "Oh, our computer simulation shows that that is the ideal place to put it." It was all I could do to keep from telling him, "Bullshit." It was just ridiculous that here was a person who should understand what a trunk is for, to store things that people want to take with them on a trip, and to disrupt it with this big spare tire was idiocy. He didn't understand that.
Another time, I was talking with an engineer about how they were using computers in the electronics of the engine for control, and he told me very proudly that he'd spent six months learning do the same function with less memory. That was at a time when the cost of memory in the electronics world was going down by a factor of two every year. So, when the car came out, the memory would've cost almost nothing. His time was worth more than that, probably, even in the huge amounts of memory that would be used in the mass production of lots and lots of cars. The mechanical engineers had no idea how costs were going down in electronics. It's an issue of siloed compartmentalization that we've gotten over quite a bit now, but there's still a lot of it around. You don't optimize by just trying to fix one little thing, you optimize by looking at everything and trying to decide the most cost-effective ways to get the price down so it'll work. Better, cheaper. It was just frustrating to me. And maybe that's one reason I ended up in administration because it was sort of inherently obvious to me that this was the way to go.
In the end, I ended up in an academic position where I was the only person in the university who was asked to be totally broad. I had to worry about everything. [Laugh] It's an interesting sort of comment, maybe on me as well as on the way that individual engineers–engineering education was pretty siloed for a long time. You'd learn mechanics but not electronics, computers, how to optimize these things. Now, it's much broader, and everyone learns something about computers, and so on. The difference between the best educational institutions and the ones that are much more traditional and old fashioned is, essentially, this business of teaching people to go outside of their own field. You need really smart people for that. That's why Caltech, MIT, Harvard, do better at that than some places that are not so well-known.
ZIERLER: I'm curious, when GM threw its weight behind this electric vehicle adventure, as it were, as president of Caltech, and as you emphasized the importance of Paul MacCready and AeroVironment in convincing GM that this was a viable project, did you take the opportunity to tout Caltech's engineering achievements, that Caltech was really part and parcel of this story?
EVERHART: Not really because I guess I didn't see Caltech as being an important part of this. I saw AeroVironment and an alumnus of Caltech who was making his own way very, very well and already had become famous as part of this story. And as you said, there were people at Hughes and General Motors who were involved in it. But I think I was more conscious of the detractors within General Motors and trying to get over that. Part of the problem in General Motors at the board level was, people were too focused on the short term. I remember a board meeting, probably in the early 1990s, where I made the prediction that by 2015, maybe 10 or 20% of the cars in the United States would be electric cars. You skate where the puck is going to be, you don't skate where the puck was. One of the other members of the board who had been at IBM before I went to Pfizer, where he was CEO, said, "The problem with predictions like that, none of us will be around in 2015 to see that. That's too far in the future. We can't deal with things like that." I said, "Electronics people have been dealing with things like that for a long time. Vacuum tubes beget radios, transistors begot the integrated circuit, and we just keep expanding and expanding on that and make huge advances. Why can't you do things like that in other areas as well?" I had one or two people on the board who were somewhat sympathetic to my points of view, but it was too far out for most people.
ZIERLER: When the concept car came out, did you see this as a novelty or that this was really going to take hold and was the wave of the future?
EVERHART: I thought it would be the wave of the future because of developments that would take place in batteries, which is still probably the greatest weakness of an electric car. And because of the complexity of computers, which were pretty clearly developing at a rapid rate. The improvements in electronics, and those fundamentals, Caltech did play a big role. Carver Mead was a huge contributor to understanding where electronics was going to go. Gordon Moore, I think, understood that better than most people in industry. That's why Intel was so successful for so long. The fundamentals, Caltech was very, very good at. I'm not sure Caltech was the right place to do the development that would lead to commercialization. If you look at where Caltech and JPL in particular are very, very good, they do things that are virtually impossible but cost a lot of money.
The things to become mass produced out of that happen normally quite a while later. Caltech was a very small place. It's gotten to where it is by having extremely bright people. I consider the Caltech faculty to be the equivalent of the top 20% of the Harvard faculty, for example. Not the whole faculty, but the top 20%. And maybe I should've been a bigger champion. I don't know. Caltech is such a special place that it's hard to go in from outside and say, "I know how to really amplify all of this." I think that my predecessor had tried to turn it into sort of a miniature Princeton, according to some of the faculty, and that didn't work. And I wanted it to be Caltech because that had been a very successful formula, and that seemed to work. David Baltimore had his own ideas, and he had the great advantage of being a Nobel laureate, and that helps a lot if you're going to be the president of Caltech. Then, Jean-Lou Chameau, another engineer–and Tom Rosenbaum is doing a terrific job. I'm very, very impressed with what Tom is doing.
ZIERLER: What years did you sit on the GM board?
EVERHART: I think I was there from 1989 to 2002.
ZIERLER: In board meetings, without talking about anything sensitive, were electric cars a topic in the board meetings? Was this something that occupied your attention?
EVERHART: Not a lot. It came up. Roger Smith had raised it. The thing I think that depressed me a little bit toward the end of my board service was people saying, "Well, electric cars aren't really the way to go. We want to go to the hydrogen economy." Turns out that's got a lot of problems. For one thing, electricity's everywhere, but hydrogen is not, so you have an issue of supply. Battery chargers are not everywhere, but electricity is. It's much easier to develop a battery charger and put it anywhere than to develop a source of hydrogen fuel. Pretty easy to develop a battery charger and plug it into the grid. Hydrogen fuel takes very different, high-pressure storage. It has to be cooled. It doesn't make a lot of sense. I thought that was a red herring for General Motors to go into. But the people inside tried to push that for their own reasons.
ZIERLER: You mentioned, of course, the importance of Roger Smith. What was your sense of why he was so keen on this project?
EVERHART: I think he was trying to make his mark, in part. To give you another example, which has nothing to do with electric cars, the science advisory committee decided that one of the things that was not happening at General Motors was they weren't understanding across the corporation what new technologies were available to be incorporated into vehicles. We suggested, "You should have a small group every year set aside and try to bring all the latest technology and show how it will be used inside a vehicle. It could be mechanics, electronics, materials." To their credit, the corporation decided, "OK, we'll try that." They came up with a very innovative vehicle that had plastic panels on the side, reduced weight, lots of other new things. People came in from all over the corporation, looked at this, and Roger Smith got so enamored of it that he decided, "We should just build this as a vehicle." And it became the Saturn. They developed a whole new division for it.
Well, that was not our idea at all. It wasn't a very smart decision because Saturn didn't last all that long. Then, because of other competitions and other decisions made at General Motors, some of the rest of the automotive industry passed it by. Not only was Saturn gone, but Pontiac and Oldsmobile were gone, too, so General Motors didn't have nearly as much product as it did when Roger Smith made that decision. The board was not in a position to say, "Roger, that's a dumb idea." We raised issues in not quite that blunt a way, but the corporation moved ahead, built Saturn away from Detroit where there wouldn't be so much union problems and so on.
ZIERLER: Did you have a chance to drive the Impact concept car?
EVERHART: Yes, I had one at Caltech for a month or so. I liked it and asked if I could have one. I think they were trying to make money out of it, so the lease cost was pretty high. I had another car I could use at Caltech for business, so I didn't push the issue. But it was a showstopper. It was a terrific car to drive. I remember one incident with a fellow who had a sports car himself back east, where he worked for the NSF. He was visiting Caltech, and we got talking about the electric car at lunch. I said, "Would you like to ride in one?" He said, "Yeah, can you do that?" I said, "Yes, I've got one in the garage. We'll get it out. We don't have time to go on the freeway, but I can at least take you down a city street." I came to a stop at a stop sign, then I hit it. His head jerked back. He looked at me and said, "I can't believe it. I've got a sports car, and it won't do that." I said, "Well, electric cars have a lot of torque." He was sold. The Caltech trustees that had them were delighted with them. I don't know of anyone who had an EV1 who wasn't very pleased with it and very irritated when General Motors took them back.
ZIERLER: To clarify, I was asking initially about the Impact, the concept car before the EV1.
EVERHART: I did not ever have an Impact. I've seen them. I don't recall that I've ever even driven one, but it's possible I drove one on GM test track if they had it at a particular time. About once a year, all the directors would go to the test track and drive a whole variety of vehicles. General Motors vehicles, competition vehicles. It's possible they had an Impact there.
ZIERLER: What do you see as the impact of the mandate from the California Air Resources Board, that there should be zero-emissions vehicles that should be sold across the United States from all of the car manufacturers? What role did you see in that story?
EVERHART: I thought it was a very good law that they passed, and I thought it was terrible when they rescinded it. Have you seen Who Killed the Electric Car?
EVERHART: I think that probably sums up many people's feelings, including mine.
ZIERLER: Do you see the EV1 being built directly as a consequence of the success of the Impact? Do you need the Impact to get to the EV1?
EVERHART: Yes, I think so.
ZIERLER: In what way?
EVERHART: Because I think the Impact showed you could build an electric vehicle that was exciting. Until that time, most of the people in General Motors said, "An electric vehicle? That's just an old lady's car." Well, you couldn't drive an Impact and say it was an old lady's car. It was a really hot two-seater, and the EV1 was a hot two-seater as well.
ZIERLER: To go back to Hughes Research Lab, once GM is fully in the electric vehicle game in the 1990s, what role is Hughes playing, if at all, in these developments?
EVERHART: I honestly do not know. I was not close to Hughes at that time. Anything that went on inside of GM where Hughes played a role was probably in Kokomo, Indiana, where Mal Currie went to lead, after Hughes was sold to General Motors. I'm not even sure I've ever visited Kokomo. If I did, it was just one short visit.
ZIERLER: When the EV1 came out, were you a booster at all?
ZIERLER: In what ways?
EVERHART: I tried to get General Motors to build it in volume. I suggested to Jack Smith, the CEO of General Motors, to come to California and meet some people who were very well-known to be prescient when it came to how science and technology developed, one of them was Si Ramo, and meet some businesspeople, one of which was Dick Rosenberg, the CEO of Bank of America in California, and talk with a variety of people, both at Caltech and connected with Caltech. But one of our trustees, Frank Wells, was the president of Walt Disney Company and was an electric car buff himself. He had a Toyota sports car that had been converted to electricity at his expense. I got Roger Smith and one or two people he brought with him to meet with Mike Eisner and Frank Wells at Walt Disney. And each one of them tried to impress on Jack Smith that yes, there will be a market for electric cars.
I think had they followed up in a smart way, if they had placed an EV1 with Eisner, the CEO of Walt Disney, or if they'd placed it with two or three other significant people in Southern California as a marketing tool, they would've done far better, but they didn't want to. The people inside of General Motors did not want it to succeed because that would make the corporation have to go through a huge amount–or at least that's the theory now that has been espoused by a lot of people who probably know better than I do. In any case, Dick Rosenberg and I went on Roger Smith's jet at the Bob Hope Airport, and we talked with him for an hour about ways it could be financed in California, which was clearly the big market because of the mild climate most of the year round, electric cars do much better there, willing to embrace a new technology, Silicon Valley was here, etc. Smith was not persuaded enough to stick his neck out with all the people under him.
ZIERLER: Did you see the way that GM rolled out the EV1 as a lease-only program offered only in limited cities too timid or the right approach, at least in the beginning, with the plan that it would grow to the national market and be offered for sale at some point?
EVERHART: I thought it was terrible. First of all, people wanted to buy it, and General Motors wouldn't make an exception and sell it. They could've sold it sort of as is, "We will not service it. We'll have a couple service centers in California, and if you want it serviced, you'll have to take it there." But they didn't do any of that. There are all sorts of ways around that problem, which General Motors did not want to embrace. They used it as an excuse to limit the number. Eventually, Rick Wagner realized that fouling up on the electric car was the biggest mistake he made as the CEO of General Motors. And he so admitted. It's one thing to realize it, it's another to admit it publicly.
ZIERLER: It's the stuff of legend now what an ardent fanbase the EV1 received among the people who were lucky enough to get one. Were you following that in real time? Did you appreciate how much people just loved driving the EV1?
EVERHART: Yes. As I said, we had three trustees at Caltech, and I had driven one myself. I drove it over to Hollywood once to go do something in Beverly Hills. I'd go out and get in it to drive back to Pasadena, and people would be gathered around looking, going, "Boy, that's neat." It was the one car that was a showstopper for General Motors, and they didn't take advantage of it.
ZIERLER: How many did you see driving around Pasadena? Did you get the sense that people were really snapping them up?
EVERHART: No. Because there weren't that many. I was conscious of them, and I could see two or three of them parked at Caltech when we had trustees meetings. I could talk with the trustees about them. I had a lot of personal input about them, which I reported back to the board, but it seemed to make no difference to the corporation.
ZIERLER: Given the level of excitement and devotion to the EV1, to the extent that you had an appreciation for corporate decision-making at GM, were you surprised when they decided to take them all back?
EVERHART: I did not know that because I was off the board by then. I left the board in 2002. I think they decided to take them all back in 2003. Had I been on the board, I would've vociferously objected.
ZIERLER: Is your sense that the board members who were there at the time made that effort? Was there an internal push to save the program?
EVERHART: I don't know, I wasn't there.
ZIERLER: Just as an outside observer, what is your sense of why GM made this decision?
EVERHART: I think it's a very large, hidebound corporation. At the time, I don't think the CEO, Rick Wagoner, who came out of finance and was not an engineer, had a good idea of the future. He's very well-known and very well-liked in lots of ways, but he did not have a good sense of how his actions might appear to people outside the corporation. When General Motors was applying for bankruptcy, it was absolutely stupid of him to fly a corporate jet to Washington and ask for funds.
ZIERLER: It was tone deaf.
EVERHART: Absolutely. I think that if the board bears a responsibility, it was not bringing in someone who could understand that it was time for the corporation to change when he was appointed as CEO. He's very good as a traditional automotive financial executive. Have you ever read the book American Icon?
EVERHART: The difference is, the American Icon was sitting in his headquarters of Ford, looked across and could see the headquarters of General Motors and Chrysler, and he said, "The only difference is, I know this industry's in trouble." He did a lot of things to fix it, and I wish I could say that Ford has totally recovered from his early big business thing. I have a son who does a lot of work with Ford executives, and I believe I would not be speaking out of school to say that they have not. They've slid back.
ZIERLER: Nowadays, people so much associate electric cars with the fact that they don't produce carbon emissions, which is good for mitigating global warming. 20, 30 years ago, in the 1990s, were people talking about that even then? Was part of the excitement about electric cars that it was a solution to global warming?
EVERHART: By the people who were worried about global warming, the answer is yes, but not very many people were worried about it. It was very hard to get businessmen in particular to understand that we have a problem with global climate change. I've watched that develop from the time I was at Berkeley when John Holdren was appointed a professor there, when I was the department head who put his papers forward, to the time that he became science advisor. He's been very consistently on that path, but it's taken a long, long time to get to where we are now. He's one person who does understand how you have to persuade the public that this is an issue. Of course, one of the things that's persuaded the public in the last two or three years is forest fires in California, floods in the Southeast, and hurricanes getting stronger and stronger. All of a sudden, people are saying, "My goodness, why didn't someone tell us about this?" [Laugh] We tried.
ZIERLER: We talked about some of the political and economic dimensions to GM's decision to kill the electric car programs. What about from an engineering perspective? From where you sat, and of course, your expertise in engineering, did you see, from a supply chain and resources perspective, that the EV1 program could have been scaled up on a national scale so that EV1s could be sold like a Chevy Caprice?
EVERHART: At the time that the EV1 was being produced, it was hard to make that case because the electronics, which had been designed with utmost reliability, were pretty primitive electronics compared–the electronics of 1995 compared with the electronics of 2015 were very, very primitive. You could make the argument that Tesla's done a very good job, but they had much more modern electronics and computers than we had 25 years ago. You could make the argument it would develop. That's a futuristic argument. You don't know how far it would develop. Mechanical engineers would believe it won't develop very far. Economic people have no idea. Electrical engineers would probably be somewhat on the optimistic side of how fast it would develop. It's hard to make a credible argument that will persuade all listeners that hear it. Remember, the board of directors, as well as the management of a large company, are made up of people from various backgrounds. I'm very pleased that Mary Barra, one of the very first engineers to ever be CEO of General Motors, has been able to pull the corporation along as far as she had, and that was, in some sense, as a reaction to Rick Wagner being so regressive. There's an awful lot of psychology and sociology as well as policy.
ZIERLER: You mentioned Tesla, of course. One of the game-changers here was the development of lithium-ion batteries, which, comes after the EV1. From an engineering perspective, the fact that the EV1 relied on lead-acid batteries, did that give you pause at all about the scalability?
EVERHART: It gave you pause about the eventual tradeoff between weight and mileage/range. Really, the problem with the EV1 and early electric cars was, they didn't have very much range. When the Bolt came out, it had a 200-mile range. That's a pretty good range for many, many applications. But because of the battery development, range has been improving quite a bit. Because of materials getting lighter and lighter, so that the battery maybe is a good part of the car's weight, but the car's weight has gone down, it makes it easier to do.
ZIERLER: What about the charging of the EV1? Was that not bothersome? Did you think that people would simply get used to plugging their car in, and that would be the new normal?
EVERHART: Yes. I had a charger in my garage at Caltech. I had a paddle charger. I put it in the EV1 when I brought it back. I never drove it on long trips, so it was always at least half-charged when I used it. I could drive it around town quite a bit during the day, but as a president of Caltech, you don't have a lot of time for pleasure driving, so I didn't really give it a big workout. My wife would drive it across town for something and come back. When it was parked across town, people would gather around it and ooh and ahh. We both enjoyed it a lot.
ZIERLER: You never experienced the so-called range anxiety that would come with longer trips.
ZIERLER: During this time, there's the parallel development over at AC Propulsion with Alan Cocconi, Wally Rippel, and Alec Brooks, and their eventual triumph with making the tzero. Were you following that in the 1990s? When the EV1 was discontinued, as far as you were concerned, the dream of the electric car really was killed at that point?
EVERHART: I first learned that the EV1s were being destroyed when I first saw the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car? It was not a big publicity thing in Southern California in the papers I read.
ZIERLER: What was your sense of GM's insistence not just to take back the cars but to crush them, to destroy them?
EVERHART: I thought it was a terrible decision. When I first heard about it, I thought, "How can anyone be so stupid?" I stand by that.
ZIERLER: Did you think that would be it?
EVERHART: No, I thought it might be it for General Motors, but not for the electric car.
ZIERLER: You believed in the concept.
EVERHART: Yeah. At that time, the Japanese were building the Prius. Nissan was coming out with an all-electric car, which has been pretty successful. If you go to, for example, Oslo in Norway, probably 30 to 40% of the cars on the road are electric. You'll see Teslas and Nissan Leafs. Those are probably the two most popular. I have a brother-in-law in Wichita, Kansas, who has a Leaf. This is his second Leaf. He had the first for three or four years and this one for a couple years, so he's very pleased with them. I think the electric car is here to stay, and I think Mary Barra and General Motors now realize that it's here to stay. The naysayers have lost out in General Motors. But they've lost a huge advantage that they had in timing.
ZIERLER: Just to make sure I understand correctly, that's to say that when GM ended the EV1 program, you saw this as a policy of GM, but your belief in the notion of an electric car did not waver, you understand and appreciated that other car companies would pick up the mantle?
EVERHART: Correct. I think that's right. And they have. I have a son who has a Ford plug-in hybrid. He uses it on electricity almost all the time. He lives in Bend, Oregon and doesn't drive it very far out of Bend. When he does drive it to San Diego or Santa Barbara, he uses gasoline, of course, and he's happy with that, too. But he likes to drive a great, big Chevy Truck when he drives on the highway for safety purposes. [Laugh] And as I said, my brother-in-law has a Leaf. I have a friend here who has two hybrids, both Fords. I personally drive a Toyota Avalon hybrid because I got tired of waiting for General Motors. When they finally came out with the Volt, I tried to get into one and I hit my head so much that my wife said, "We can't have one of these." I've got a nice, four-seat Avalon, and we like it very much. I bought it, I think, in 2014. It's got eight years on it and is going strong.
ZIERLER: When you had to give back your EV1, how did you get the news? Was it a letter of demand from VM?
EVERHART: No, I just had it for a month or so. As a board member, I wanted one, and they said, "Yes, you can have one." They let the board members have them for a month or so. Since I was a champion of it, I was probably the first to get one. They put a charger in my garage at their expense. I had the full experience. But I didn't have it for very long.
ZIERLER: In reflecting on the legacy of the EV1, what technologies were pushed forward as a result of creating this amazing automobile that went into future cars, even ones that might not have been electric? In what ways did EV1 push forward car design for GM?
EVERHART: First of all, aerodynamics. The aerodynamics of modern cars are much better than the older cars. General Motors actually built a wind tunnel, maybe before the EV1, but they started to understand that aerodynamics was important. If you look at most modern cars, they look surprisingly similar. That's because they all have to have good aerodynamics. That was one. Low-rolling resistance tires, another thing that's improved a lot. For the internal combustion engine, one thing that has improved a lot is the control system. You used to have to take a car to get tuned up every 10,000 miles. Now, you don't have to get it tuned up for the first 100,000 miles. Because as things go slightly off-key, the control system brings them back to the right place. The car continues to operate pretty well for a very long period of time due to electronic controls. The electronics have improved a huge amount. If you look at electric cars today, Tesla and others, you see a big display. I have a 2008 Buick, which has a small display. It's been a very good car, I like it a lot, it's all-wheel-drive, I take it up to the mountains and drive it there during the summer, but we don't put many miles on it during the year. It's a gasoline car that doesn't get great mileage. Nonetheless, I find it economic to use because it doesn't cost much to license it and so on. We believe we need two cars here in Santa Barbara, even though we don't drive very much, because my wife wants to go one direction, I want to go another sometimes.
ZIERLER: It sounds like what you're emphasizing in terms of these developments, so crucial is that the EV1 was built as an electric car from the ground up. In other words, it was not a conversion of a preexisting car, that's what made the difference.
EVERHART: I think that's exactly right. and that's because it was a successor to the Sunraycer and the Impact, both of which were totally newly designed cars. They didn't have gasoline engines, they didn't have to worry about the controls of gasoline engines. They had to worry about weight, strength, and center of gravity, lots of things like that.
ZIERLER: You talked about your decision to do an interview for the documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? What kind of homework did you do about the filmmakers' motivations and angle before you made that decision?
EVERHART: Not much. I talked with Paul MacCready, and Paul had worked with this fellow quite a bit. I trusted Paul, so I said, "I'll be glad to be interviewed. I just will be guarded in what I say," and I was. In the end, I almost come out looking like an apologist for General Motors. I tried to say why, instead of investing in the EV1, they decided to go with this big SUV they came out with. They thought there was a bigger market for that. I thought they were wrong, and I told them so, but it didn't change the decisions of the board or management. As I've looked at it over the years, I think one of my problems on the General Motors board was, I was viewed as an academic without any commercial experience. They thought I didn't take into account making a profit in the same way most of the rest of them did. I was looking much farther into the future than they were. That was at a time when the future was the next quarterly profit report. Quarterly, not annual. And they were worried about stock. The second company I was on the board of was Hewlett-Packard. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard didn't care about the quarterly profit report, they cared about the future of the company. That was very different. But even so, some other members of the board did care about the quarterly profit report, and it's that mindset that hurt Hewlett-Packard, and it's not nearly the company it once was.
ZIERLER: Even as a so-called academic, were the numbers you were seeing suggestive that the EV1 was a money-losing proposition, even in the short term?
EVERHART: I think the numbers I saw would say that if you're only going to build 300 of them, it's going to be a money-losing proposition. I think probably the Prius lost money for the first year or so, but Toyota was going to build it for the long term. They've changed the models a little bit, but not a lot, and have continued to improve it. The Japanese understood continuous improvement much better than the Americans did.
ZIERLER: But isn't that a self-fulfilling prophecy at GM? If you're going to only build 300, isn't it unfair to conclude that it's going to be a money-losing proposition based on how few of them you're producing?
EVERHART: Yes. It's dishonest. But the people were using other reasons to try to kill it and say, "No matter what we do, it'll be a money-losing proposition. We'll never have the right batteries." Well, we do have the right batteries now, but it's a long time into the future.
ZIERLER: You mentioned the Japanese. One thing I'm wondering about, and perhaps you have some insight, the Japanese established a toehold in the American car market after the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s because they were producing fuel-efficient cars. I'm always surprised why the electric car story is a story of American ingenuity and not, for example, Japanese ingenuity. In other words, why was the EV1 not something we would've seen from Toyota or Honda?
EVERHART: I think the same attitudes exist probably around the world. If you make the case that we don't have the batteries–in the 70s, we certainly didn't have the batteries–the battery became an economic proposition between lithium-ion batteries and other more advanced batteries, and they're not mass produced. They cost a lot to start with. I think that's a big issue. And batteries are heavy. They still are a significant amount of the weight of an electric car. I'm not trying to say everyone in GM was totally wrong, I'm just saying if you look at the various aspects and weight, what the future's going to become, you come to a different conclusion than General Motors did.
ZIERLER: Given your interest in the segment, when Tesla first started to arrive on the scene, were you keyed in more than the average citizen about what Tesla was doing? Were you following those developments closely?
EVERHART: No, because by the time Tesla came on the scene, I was not nearly as active as I had been previously. I'd been either a dean, a chancellor, or a president for something like eight years. I had not stayed at the top of the research, as other people have.
ZIERLER: I think I have one last question to wrap up this terrific and really insightful conversation. I'd like to bring it back to something you said about the importance of Paul MacCready and the Sunraycer to this idea that an electric car can be created. Just from a materials perspective, there doesn't seem to be much connection between a solar-powered car and a battery-powered car. It's more a story, it sounds like, of daring, ingenuity, and hard work. In that vein, I wonder how you might connect the creation of electric cars at GM to what Caltech represented more broadly in its approach to science and engineering.
EVERHART: I don't agree with you that a solar-powered car and an electric car are all that different. They both run on electricity. The only difference is, the source of electricity in a solar-powered car is the sun that shines on panels, which don't weigh so much, and therefore, you don't have the problem of weight that you have with batteries. In an electric car, which has to run in the dark, you have to power things from the batteries entirely, and you can get a little extra from solar, but not much. I would argue that a solar car makes you think in an all-electric way that no other car before the electric car would have. I think that's a really important point. The solar-powered car was terrific when the sun was shining. But at night, they had to go to bed. They couldn't drive it. Because it was a solar race, all the cars were solar, a regular car would've been able to beat it because it could drive at night. I think that's a pretty important point.
ZIERLER: You're saying from an engineering perspective, the Sunraycer as a proof of concept is absolutely vital to the EV1.
EVERHART: I think so. MacCready did the first Impact, and then I think General Motors and others got involved in other ones. There was an Impact before the one that General Motors had so much input into, I think. Then, the EV1, of course, had a lot of other inputs. Did Cocconi have input in the EV1?
ZIERLER: I don't think so.
EVERHART: I've known his name being associated with electric cars for a long time, but I didn't know exactly what his role was.
ZIERLER: Alan Cocconi is a visionary and an amazing engineer, but he never wanted to be part of a corporate experience. I'm always looking for ways that Caltech supports this world-changing research that it's known for. Beyond Paul MacCready himself, what does it say about Caltech that something as daring as the Sunraycer was produced here at Caltech?
EVERHART: Well, the Sunraycer was done by AeroVironment, not Caltech. My memory says that the Sunraycer was done by AeroVironment with some support from General Motors to demonstrate some of the concepts that eventually went into the Impact and EV1. I don't know all the relationships behind that. I'm sure people at AeroVironment do know that. Alec Brooks probably knows a lot about that. But I think MacCready got some of this knowledge and ability to try to take things to their ultimate at Caltech. I don't think the two are divorced at all, and he's been a very strong supporter of Caltech during his life. I got to know him primarily because when he was involved in some of these things, as a Caltech alumnus, I would go out to AeroVironment, see what they were doing, and got an appreciation for how clever they were at testing out ideas. And they were very, very clever at doing that. In part, it was due to Paul MacCready and the atmosphere he fostered there. Beyond that, I'm not sure I can say much. And I'm sorry that we're having this conversation in 2022, and my memory's not as sharp as it was in 2012.
ZIERLER: I don't know, it sounds pretty sharp to me. [Laugh] Last question, looking to the future. To the extent that we can extrapolate, given all that you know and have experienced about the electric car saga, are you optimistic that widespread adoption of electric vehicles will get to a point where it's really not a novelty but part of the solution and all the ways we understand electric vehicles to hold a promise?
EVERHART: I think the answer to that is yes. I don't think electric vehicles will be the only vehicles. I think in probably 10 or 15 years, they will be the majority of new vehicles sold. And I think there still will be, for quite a while, a market for hybrids because they have much greater range. That's why I decided to buy a hybrid. I did not want to be limited to the range of an electric vehicle in 2014, when I bought it.
ZIERLER: You probably have seen now, though, that the latest Teslas and even the Lucid Air are talking, now, about a 900-, 1,000-mile range.
EVERHART: Well, when it's demonstrated, I'll believe it. But that just shows that batteries have come a long way. And so have the electronics. It's both.
ZIERLER: Do you think Caltech will continue to play a leadership role in this research space?
EVERHART: I think that Caltech will play a leadership role in getting over the problems of fossil fuels, and I think that Harry Atwater and a lot of people at Caltech, in engineering, chemistry, biology, are doing some very good work in those areas. If you want to talk with someone about what Caltech is doing now, I think Harry Atwater would be a good person to talk with.
ZIERLER: That's wonderful. On that note, Tom, I'd like to thank you so much for spending this time with me. I'm delighted we were able to do this.