The following (part 2) is based on a conversation I had with Roger Atkins, EV Specialist and Founder at Electric Vehicles Outlook Ltd, who has been highly engaged with all aspects of the electric vehicle journey for the past 15 years. In this post you’ll find insights related to keys to career success, the future of solid state batteries, advantages and disadvantages with AI, and of course, electric vehicles. You can hear the full conversation on his podcast, Electric & Eclectic with Roger Atkins.
Roger: Let’s get back to electric vehicles now. There’s an acronym, which you’ll be familiar with called CASE, “connected, autonomous, shared, electric vehicles.” I think the two really exciting bits of that acronym are “shared” because society needs to shift to be less selfish, and “autonomous.” So, what would your sense be, Jack, on the timeline of us having fully autonomous vehicles that can take you anywhere and do profound things, because it can. Can you give us a little feel for that because you know this stuff?
Jack: To your point, I have an EV that sits in the sun 12 hrs a day and is not driven. I pay $30-40k for it to just sit there. It is a resource that you use a few hours out of the day and then it just sits there. No other resource is like that. What if you own part of it? Say, 10% of it if 10 others own it too. You hail it and get in it; you sit in the back seat on your phone and do your email, then it drops you off and splits and does something else. You can’t pay a staffer to sit and drive people around as that’s expensive, but that’s the model for autonomy. You still own the vehicle, but you only use it for transportation. It’s much like a Venn diagram of Uber and your own personal vehicle.
People choose cars based on the way they look. You wouldn’t buy an EV with 10 horsepower that looks like a Ferrari because it doesn’t go fast, so it has to look good. It’s the buyer’s market so the style and design is important. You would choose what pool of cars you want to be in based on the kind of cars you’d like to be seen in. I really like British cars, I’ve got a LOLAT70 and I drive it on the street. I love the way they look, they’re light. I love Bentleys and Rolls and all that stuff.
I think the autonomous model that will come is something car manufacturers are going to have to deal with. They are used to selling you something that they know is going to sit, and EVs potentially last 400,000 miles and aren’t worn out yet. One of the things I talked to Henrik Fisker about was what do you do with a viable power train and an outdated body style? Could it be that you take the car in and you get a new body put on it to freshen up its look? It would still be viable, still be yours, and cheaper than buying a new one. This was not my idea. This was Henrik’s thing he was thinking about.
Roger: I can sense that we are like minded on this madness of owning cars. I made a little presentation and delivered it a few times, which is called “Mass adoption of electric vehicles would be a big mistake.” It would be madness and we will have achieved nothing if we build 70 million cars a year like we do today. There is no need, the most inefficient part is not the motor, engine, battery, or fuel tank, it’s the utilization and ownership. I am completely with you on this and I am extremely passionate about understanding how we can get there. Do you believe with the work that you’ve done we can ever get to a point where artificial intelligence has sentience or an independent intelligence and capabilities?
Jack: It’s interesting that art and technology follow hand in hand. The Italian movie poster for 2001 Space Odyssey has a guy holding a tablet computer in his hand and looking at it, and that’s how far ahead these are. It’s like who came first, art or tech? I always liked that movie, that’s my favorite movie. I saw it too when I was a kid, but I really didn’t really understand it.
The other dystopian movie I like is THX1138, George Lucas’s first big budget feature film. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. The center feature of that is the LOLA T70, exactly what I have. When I saw that movie I said, “Someday I’m going to own that car.”
Roger: Do you think, given your fascination with dystopian science fiction, that this could be a scenario where the only way we are saved from utter destruction is to cede responsibility to artificial intelligence?
Jack: What artificial intelligence does well, particularly neural nets is.. first of all let me back up. I don’t personally believe they’ll ever have human consciousness. I don’t think it can do that. If you ever look at a neural net, it’s a really simple little thing. It’s an array of software things that get reinforced by training. So the only training into a neural net is what we put into it. It’s good at pattern recognition because this array of things can get impressed with regions of the face that have a certain color or shape or something, and then reinforce on that. A neural net is blank and all of a sudden the software comes in and lays down what the neural net is supposed to have in each node. Then that gets used to do pattern recognition and if that doesn’t work, it lays in a new neural net. It is impressed with what is already known about it, so it previously knows something. If you know that about the neural net you can put that on the hard disk and re-array a pattern of nodes. I don’t understand how it would ever have a conscience. It takes a long time to train them with the regular computer, but with a GPU or tensor processor, the training happens very quickly. So for instance, if you have it on a security camera, it gets used to you being around, so it’s not going to trigger on you being around. But your pool guy, who comes around once or twice a year is not really in your database, so it might trigger on him because he is not part of the pattern we loaded in the net.
Roger: Jack, can I ask you a bit more about the electric vehicle thing? You mentioned batteries earlier on. I’m lucky I get to talk to lots of different people, and the general consensus of battery experts is that the capability of batteries is 1-10 and 10 is the ultimate battery. At the moment the people that I talk to say we are on about 4 on that scale. And the things like solid state batteries and others coming along will take us towards 10. What sort of battery and chemistry are you using at the moment? Any interesting novel stuff you’re looking at around BMS and other stuff that you are learning from?
Jack: On the subject of battery chemistry, that is something that I teach a class at UC Berkeley undergrad in EV engineering on. I cover all topics, but particularly the control of the outcome and electric motor design of the physical motor. We talk about batteries too.
To make a long story short, a battery over its life of being charged and discharged accumulates damage. Essentially the damage can be so severe that the battery can fail catastrophically. The solid state battery seems to be the best candidate for resolving this situation, and the metallic and lithium anodes instead of the carbon anodes seem to be the best option for increasing the energy density. There are other chemistries that are being looked at. Lithium sulfide, lithium oxide seem to be the highest energy density, but this is a big problem to solve right now.
When Lee Iacocca handed me Panasonic lithium batteries for portable computers and cameras, they were brand new and had problems. They would break and get really warm. You have to control the temperature on them. I am using lithium-ion standard cells, but I’m doing it differently. What we’re trying to do is to use one series of cells as a brake cell and get rid of the mechanical brakes on the vehicle.
I mentioned Eric Buell earlier, a visionary guy. Years ago he was working on a hybrid and he said, “You know, when a turbo combustion engine is at maximum power, peak power, it is the most efficient.” So i said to myself, why don’t we just have a very small engine that has max power constantly, like an airplane? Well that’s kind of what he was doing, putting this little engine in there with a generator on it that runs all the time and uses a lithium-ion battery. So it’s kind of like a hybrid and its own kind of thing.
That is what I am working on, building an EV without brakes. It’s using a lithium-ion battery for now until I find a different kind of cell that can deal with it. I am able to have an EV that never needs charging, if you can get your head around that. The internal combustion engine is so efficient that it keeps the battery top dog. Any braking energy, when you slow down to come to a roundabout, and yield, the mechanical brakes are never activated. It is all regenerative braking that is captured inside the empty battery. When you stop, the gas engine comes on and the braking battery recharges the other battery. That is what I’m playing around with.
Roger: It seems a bit like flywheel technology, is it similar to that?
Jack: Flywheel technology takes the braking energy and stores it. It’s a mechanical flywheel that has inertional rotational energy. So, no it doesn’t use that. It’s an internal combustion and a hybrid but not any of the categories of hybrid that you see in commercial production. It’s a mule that we’re going to test on. I’ve got it running, but not the gas part of the engine. It does 50 miles an hour and will keep up in traffic.
I don’t think internal combustion engines and oil will go away. We can’t have a carbon neutral society. Everything you wear and own is made of plastic, so it won’t happen like that. What will convince people to buy electric vehicles is that the cost might be lower and the utilization might be less. You will only need it 10 percent of the time and you would only pay for 10 percent of the time. What car manufacturers will do in this situation is unknown. I think they’ll be unpleasantly surprised that they are not selling as many cars.
Roger: Fascinating. Just quickly on the batteries for a second, I talked to Gianfranco Pizzuto, the founder and CEO of Automobili Estrema. They will have, in the spring of next year, solid state batteries in his electric hyper car. He was telling me that this is all well and good, they have them, they’re good, but the 90 kilowatt battery pack will cost $300,000. So what is the idea? What’s the best battery? Well it’s a bit like getting a lottery ticket. You can get three of the numbers, you get a few bucks. If you get five or six, you have won a lot of money, and it’s the same with batteries. In this case it sounds like they ticked all the boxes around safety, efficiency, etc. but not cost. You cannot shift 90 kilowatt batteries that are solid state but cost $300,000, that’s not gonna happen. But nonetheless, look out for that because I think it’s interesting.
Listen Jack, you’re such an interesting dude and I know we could talk for a lot longer. Some time in the future I would love to do this again because I think there will be a lot of people that get a lot out of what you said and all the work that you did.
This has been a great look into the life of Jack McCauley, and I’m really excited to introduce you to my audience. I am very lucky to have spent plenty of time on LinkedIn and have gotten nearly 300,000 followers now. I think I’ve got that because my net worth is my network. For me, it is not the people I know, but what they know that I then introduce to my network that has rewarded me. I work hard to find interesting stories and interesting people and Jack, you’re definitely one of them, so thank you so much for your time.
Jack: Thank you Roger, I really appreciate the time I spent with you and it was so great meeting you.