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The Hybrid Car Conspiracy

How an EPA regulator set the U.S. hybrid car industry back 30 years. (Also read Scott Budman: Tesla’s (Mortal) Coil.)

by
Ronnie Schreiber

Bio

February 8, 2009 - 12:29 am
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In the early 1970s, Dr. Victor Wouk, an independent American inventor, developed a practical hybrid car that cut down on pollution and saved gasoline, but a conspiracy killed it.

It’s the kind of story Hollywood loves. In Tucker: A Man and His Dream, political agents of the Big 3 automakers maneuver to put Preston Tucker out of business; intermittent windshield wiper inventor Robert Kearns is ripped off by the Ford Motor Company in Flash of Genius; Who Killed the Electric Car? accuses General Motors of suppressing electric vehicles by crushing them.

Too many elements of Wouk’s story, though, run counter to the preferred Hollywood narrative. In this case, car companies aren’t the villains. To the contrary, American car companies and a chemical company encouraged and helped Wouk. The villain in this story was a government environmental regulator.

The Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1970 mandated a 95% reduction in auto emissions. The Federal Clean Car Incentive Program was started as part of the CAA, providing $25 million a year for the government to purchase low-emission cars. Bids were submitted and approved. Only Wouk’s bid made it far enough to provide a test vehicle, and it was the only gasoline-electric hybrid submitted.

Wouk was no backyard tinker or crackpot. He earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and worked on the Manhattan Project. By 1963, he had established and sold two successful electronics manufacturing companies. By 1970, he had a decade of experience with electric cars, having designed the first transistor speed control in the early 1960s for the parent company of Exide batteries. Excide batteries had converted a small fleet of Renault Dauphines to electricity. Electric cars and their low emissions intrigued Wouk, but he recognized the batteries’ limitations on performance and range.

Gulton Industries acquired Wouk’s second company and was looking for markets for the new nickel-cadmium batteries they were supplying to the U.S. Air Force. Wouk suggested using NiCads in electric cars. The Big 3 declined to participate because they had electric vehicle programs of their own, but American Motors couldn’t afford such a program, and a 1967 Rambler station wagon was provided as a test mule.

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