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.
Wouk’s electric Rambler wagon was state of the art, with regenerative braking. Unfortunately, energy density remained a problem. Wouk became convinced that until more advanced batteries became available, a hybrid drivetrain was a more practical solution.
Together with his research partner Charlie Rosen — a chemist and thermodynamicist — Wouk saw an opportunity in the Federal Clean Car Incentive Program (FCCIP.) They incorporated Petro-Electric Motors and prepared a bid. A prototype would be built at their expense. Upon delivery to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Petro-Electric would be paid $1. If the prototype passed the EPA’s testing, Petro-Electric would be paid $37,000 and the EPA would buy a test fleet of 10 cars to test for a year. If successful, the EPA would then purchase 350 cars.
As an engineer, electric cars intrigued Wouk, but he also had deep concerns about pollution. At a panel on air quality in New York that included an executive in charge of GM’s Tech Center in Warren, MI, and Eric Stork, an EPA official, Wouk presented his case for hybrid technology. Some of the attendees — including Stork — were skeptical about hybrids. GM, though, was aware of the limitations of battery power alone and expressed interest in Wouk’s work. With the bid approved, Wouk and Rosen began their work on a GM ’72 Buick Skylark.
After suffering some initial setbacks, Wouk eventually completed his test vehicle. However, EPA staff members told him that Eric Stork — now deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Mobile Source Air Pollution Control, the EPA’s chief automotive regulator — reportedly said, “Under no circumstances is the hybrid to be accepted.” He also threatened to end the entire program.
Wouk petitioned the National Science Foundation and a special committee was appointed to review the matter. Stork eventually relented and the hybrid was tested. Wouk claimed it passed all the tests. Thirty years later — while dismissing the technology — Stork didn’t dispute Wouk’s claims.
“On the dynamometer, it was rigged to run only on the batteries,” Stork said. “That’s why the emissions were so good. It’s just not a very practical technology for automotive. That’s why it’s going nowhere. It certainly wasn’t [going anywhere] then. Even today, it’s marginal.”
Stork doesn’t like hybrids now and he didn’t like hybrids then.
Right up until his death, Wouk insisted that his hybrid met the requirements to go on to phase II of the project. The EPA indeed paid Petro-Electric according to the bid contract, so it appears that the hybrid met the specified terms. Following the tests, though, the EPA sent Petro-Electric a report listing 75 reasons for not proceeding to phase II.
What followed was months of correspondence between the EPA and Wouk over whether the hybrid met the terms of the bid. Part of that correspondence included a letter from Stork acknowledging that the hybrid generated less pollution and produced better mileage than a conventional car, but he was philosophically opposed to hybrids.
Wouk eventually tired of the fight. While he remained a tireless advocate of hybrid cars, without financial backing he wasn’t going to be the one making them. He continued his research and successfully secured a number of patents relating to hybrids and electric vehicles.
Today Stork remains skeptical about the Wouk hybrid. “It never happened,” he said not long ago.
While Stork’s actions prevented the U.S. from developing hybrid technology decades before the Toyota Prius, Wouk eventually received recognition for his work. With “marginal” hybrids selling hundreds of thousands of units a year, and hybrids being produced or developed by nearly every automaker, Wouk’s groundbreaking work has been rediscovered. His writings and patents are frequently cited in papers and patent applications on hybrid technology. Victor Wouk is now generally acknowledged as the “godfather of the hybrid car.”
The full story, though, was not revealed until recently. Engineers and hybrid enthusiasts may have known about Wouk, but Eric Stork continued to regulate in anonymity. Prior to his death in 2005, Wouk told the hybrid’s story as part of a Caltech oral history project. Though excerpts of the interview were published, Stork’s name was redacted. It was only after Wouk’s passing that the full transcripts were released.
Detroit didn’t kill the hybrid car; Eric Stork did.