An Electric Car That Hardly Needs Batteries

Rosen Motors uses a gas turbine and a flywheel

Harold A. Rosen hopes to be the next automotive pioneer to follow in the footsteps of Henry Ford and Walter Percy Chrysler. Rosen's idea for standing the auto industry on its head is a remarkable new electric car that doesn't need a trunk full of batteries. Rosen says his hybrid gasoline-electric car would be almost as nonpolluting as battery-powered vehicles, get twice the mileage of Detroit's family sedans, and outperform most sports cars.

Eager to show that his brainchild can deliver on those promises, the 70-year-old inventor recently leased a Mercedes E320. His engineers quickly ripped out its engine and transmission to make way for the Rosen drive train. Only after it was too late did one of them realize that Rosen might have a problem when it came time to return the car.

The incident may smack of slapstick comedy--and Rosen's characteristically rumpled appearance fits right in. But Detroit would be ill-advised to write off Rosen Motors as some crackpot operation. Next month, the company has booked time at Willow Springs Raceway near Los Angeles. After three years of development, Rosen's first hybrid car, a 1993 Saturn that Rosen used to drive, will strut its stuff. The Mercedes--now fully paid for, incidentally--probably won't be finished in time to join its predecessor. "We were very naive when we made the Saturn our first car," says Rosen. "It's light, but our experimental equipment packed it to the gunwales."

The upstart company's co-founders--Harold Rosen and his natty kid brother, Benjamin M. Rosen, 63--sense one of those rare turning points in history. Every couple of decades, Ben Rosen notes, technological trends and societal forces seem to create windows of opportunity through which tiny companies and breakthrough technologies zoom into international prominence.

Ben Rosen knows a thing or two about windows of opportunity. He's a venture capitalist who bet on a 1982 startup, Compaq Computer Corp. Two years ago, Compaq passed IBM and Apple to become the world's biggest maker of personal computers--with Rosen still at the helm as chairman. "Who would've thought IBM was vulnerable--or AT&T?" asks Ben. Now he's talking about his brother's accomplishments. Harold Rosen, while a young radar engineer at Hughes Aircraft Co., led the team that built the first geostationary communications satellite in 1963. AT&T had previously tried a different approach. But its switchboards-in-space were put in a conventional orbit, and because they circled the earth, they were available for just a few hours from any given spot. Today, a flock of Rosen-inspired "birds," most built by Hughes, are parked in special orbits, so they hover motionless above a single spot, providing the electronic pathways that enable phone calls and TV signals to hop oceans.

Next, Rosen Motors brashly predicts, Harold's latest innovation will eventually dominate the concrete highways on earth--with car companies forced to buy their power-train technology from the Woodland Hills (Calif.) upstart. To auto makers, that's heresy. Engines and transmissions are the heart and soul of car companies. Making matters worse, the Rosen power train bears little resemblance to conventional engines and transmissions. Instead, it's a collection of motors driving a hybrid electric-gasoline schooner that could go halfway across the country on one tank of gasoline.

NO SMOG. To power the motors that turn the wheels, there's a turbine engine like the ones used in jet planes. But it's puny. It generates roughly 60 horsepower--just enough to maintain a car's speed on relatively flat stretches. And because turbines use a lean fuel-air mixture that burns at a lower temperature, most of the noxious chemicals that contribute to smog don't clog the exhaust.

For slam-back performance, the turbo-generator is coupled with a flywheel. This is a cylinder made of reinforced composites. It spins silently at very high speeds inside a vacuum chamber. Flywheels were conceived to both produce and store energy: When the car is cruising or braking, extra energy is transferred to the flywheel, increasing its speed. Conversely, when more power is needed, the flywheel switches to being a generator and produces 150 kilowatts, or 200 horsepower.

Says David R. McLellan, a former chief engineer for General Motors Corp.'s Corvette: "I don't see any fundamental reason why they can't do a turbine-flywheel hybrid at today's automotive pricing." McClellan is a consultant to Rosen Motors. "We think they've picked all the right paths to go," says Vern L. Raburn, CEO of Paul Allen Group, which manages the investments of the co-founder of Microsoft Corp.

Harold Rosen's modified Mercedes may be a cornerstone of the bridge to the future the Rosen brothers plan to build. With its normal engine, it does 0-to-60 mph in 6.7 seconds. Harold expects his drive train to shave that to six seconds flat, giving it a hotter-than-hot edge. The Rosens figure it will be at least five or six years before sales take off. It will take time to convince auto companies to adopt the Rosen power train and then a couple more years for the technology to be engineered into production models. To span the gap, the Rosens plan to customize 1,000 or more luxury cars.

These environment-friendly "limited editions" should fetch fancy prices from the first-on-the-block crowd, garnering needed revenue for the privately financed company. And if the hybrids sell as well as the Rosens expect, they could also be powerful tools in helping to persuade any heel-dragging auto makers. "We'll try to force the [environmental] issue," Ben Rosen says.

Until recently, Rosen Motors has been cloaked in secrecy. While more than a dozen companies were trumpeting their battery-powered cars, Rosen Motors was quietly operating out of the Tarzana (Calif.) headquarters building of Capstone Turbine Corp., which will supply turbines to Rosen Motors. At the end of 1994, Rosen Motors moved into its own building in Woodland Hills, just up the freeway from Los Angeles.

So far, the Rosen duo has briefed 10 U.S. and European auto makers. The reaction has been predictable. "They're skeptical," admits Ben. Consultants and friends have also been treated to peeks at the technology. They're much more impressed, and perhaps a little less dubious. "The wizardry is not in a single breakthrough," says David E. Liddle, CEO of Interval Research Corp., a company that develops promising new technologies. "It's in the way they put together a number of very strong ideas that recently have become just barely possible."

Underwriting developments involving a whole stew of various technologies is never cheap. So far, Ben Rosen has personally sunk $13 million into the effort. "It's a field-of-dreams project," shrugs Ben. "It's something we both thought had to be done." And he's so sure the auto makers will come that he's ready to pony up the $15 million more he figures it'll take to get Rosen Motors to the point where outsiders would be willing to invest.

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