Father of EV1 Says Electric Car Breakthrough Is Close Forbes

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General Motors EV1

Father of EV1 Says Electric Car Breakthrough Is Close

Protean Electric CEO Bob Purcell

Bob Purcell, known in the automotive industry as the father of General Motors General Motors ‘ EV1 plug-in car, has been in the automotive business for 45 years, the last 20 of which have been dedicated to electric vehicle development. And even though he’s 60 years old and should be starting to think about retirement, he’s not about to quit now — not when the industry seems so close to a breakthrough.

“I’m not going to retire until I get one to high volume for real,” said Purcell. “I’ll be honest. I think we’re there.”

Purcell, the former head of GM’s advanced vehicle technology group, is now chief executive of a Michigan -based technology startup he founded called Protean Electric, which has developed an innovative wheel hub motor that could finally make electric vehicles practical for the mass market.

“We’re at a critical juncture in the world auto industry,” said Purcell. There are one billion vehicles in operation on the planet today — a milestone that took well over a century to achieve, he said. But under current projections, the next billion vehicles will be on the road within just 15 to 20 years. “We’re going to double the car parc in the next two decades,” he said. It’s impossible for all of those vehicles to be conventionally powered by gasoline.

There’s not enough fossil fuel available; nor can the environment handle it, he said.

That’s why he is optimistic that Protean’s new wheel-based electric motors might help speed the adoption of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and fully electric vehicles. “We’re an ideal transitional technology,” he told me during a break at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ annual World Congress in Detroit. where he was showing off Protean’s final iteration of the technology before production begins next year.

General Motors EV1

Protean’s system, called Protean Drive, uses independently controlled in-wheel motors with an integrated inverter, control electronics and software. By packing all the power and torque directly into the wheel systems, Protean says it eliminates the need for costly and cumbersome gearboxes, transmissions, driveshafts, axles and differentials. This makes cars lighter and more efficient, by eliminating wasted drivetrain energy during acceleration and braking.


It also opens up new creative possibilities for auto designers, who would no longer have build their designs around a bulky transmission and driveshaft.

“This is a practical solution the auto industry can use now,” Purcell said, because it works for both new cars as well as conventional cars that are being converted to plug-ins. “I think people will build vehicles around the wheel motors.” he said.

Protean has raised $125 million in venture capital so far; its latest round of financing included two large Chinese investors. Production starts in 2014 at the company’s new facility in China .

The big question, of course, is which cars will feature it? Purcell says the company is in talks with carmakers “on all three continents” to license the Protean Drive system, but nothing has been announced. Stay tuned.

General Motors EV1
General Motors EV1

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