The following 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: How is Jack McCauley the guy you are today from everything that’s happened in all those previous days in your life?
Jack: I couldn’t have been successful without the support and mentoring I received from people I’ve come to know throughout my career. I’ve made it a habit of staying in touch with folks I’ve worked with over the past 35-40 years. For instance, the guy I worked for at Kodak Research, one of my first jobs – he and I worked on entertainment and a sound system. Long story short, I stayed in touch with him until he passed away in 2019, and I made a habit of doing that. Another example is the guy I worked for who got me the gig at Activision on Guitar Hero, for which I was the design engineer. He now shares a workspace with me here at my R&D facility and hardware incubator because he wants to build a startup and he needs a place to do it. I have all the tools, the facility, and I owe him, and so he’s here.
I am a very persistent person and I’m the type of person who doesn’t give up very easily. If I run into a problem I keep attacking it until I get it, but I’m where I am now, in large part due to the fact that I relied on other people, and got a really good education for a middle-class guy. Truly, the gift that I got from my education is the primary motivator for where I am today.
Now on the art part. I especially like dystopian science fiction. Things of that nature, things that get blown up. And so I’m kind of a natural in video games. I always like to throw a little bit of art into my coding. For example, I’ll put names of characters in games from movies to see if anyone catches it. I kind of like that stuff. So, all of that combined with great parenting is part of who I am today. I would get hired, gig after gig because they knew I would do the work and get along with folks to make stuff happen. And of course, there comes a time when things are so far behind, you have to crack the whip, and I can do that too. I used to work for Lee Iacocca in the 90s.
Roger: Oh, that’s fantastic!
Jack: I built an electric bicycle for him. He loved Chrysler, had a start-up company and they were making electric bicycles and the company is still around though of course Lee has passed. I watched guys like him very carefully to see how they interacted with people. And I would say of all the people that I’ve worked with, he is the most talented.
There’s another guy I work with who is good at getting people running and motivated. He’s like a football coach. He’s a tough guy too, he didn’t put up with much. I just watched those guys and I just copied what they did and it kind of worked. I don’t have any great gift in management, I just watch what works with people and what doesn’t.
In a creative environment, particularly in video games, it’s more or less a thing of getting people into the right position that they’re supposed to be in and letting them work together and interact, and then moving the team around a little bit to get things to go the way you want them to go. And also being a little bit of a whip cracker when you need to be. These are things I learned just by watching people.
At Oculus we had a first-rate CEO. He was able to convince Mark Zuckerberg to buy our business. This guy could sell water to the ocean, he was that good at it. He was so good with people and could just read every twitch on your face, and then structure his pitch to make it appeal to you. I also know the CEO of Ferrari, Benedetto Vigna as well and I worked pretty closely with them, on various ventures like Guitar Hero and Oculus. It’s all about people skills and getting a giant group of people to follow your lead.
Roger: That’s a lovely journey. I sold some advertising space over the telephone to Lee Iococca once and it gave me the biggest thrill in the world because I’d rung up the company early in the morning. He picked up the phone straight off, there was no one else in. He listened to my pitch kind of halfway through and he said, “Look, Roger, I’m really busy. We’re gonna take a page in color, speak to this guy when he comes in, and tell him Lee said we’re taking a page.” And he said, “Roger, early bird gets the worm, remember that.” And I kind of thought, in just a few minute conversation with somebody I vaguely knew who was a bit of a superstar, it must have impacted my life. When I reflect on it now, so much more than I realized then, because, you know, get up early, get on with it. Don’t fear, going for all of those things. So for you to have worked with him, I’m fascinated.
Roger: Jack, you are one of the most successful, profound and super smart technologists, talking about people and human skills, character, personality and relationships. And I think a lot of people would be very pleasantly surprised to hear that because you would be called “geeky.” Your world is very “geeky” and people I think all too often associate that with not having the people skills and you clearly have them.
What you told me is that you don’t immediately get something back, but you will get it back eventually even if it’s not in the kind of tangible, materialistic way. I like that and I think anybody that has that kind of altruism in them is a person that will leave the planet having made it a better place, which is cool.
And on that note, there’s Shai Agassi of Better Place. I got to know him quite well by the way. He raised nearly a billion dollars and the thing didn’t work. It was battery swapping in a few minutes to basically deliver range to vehicles and take out the cost of the battery, by leasing the battery as a split lease on the vehicle. His star shone brightly for a few years, but then it didn’t work out. But again, people like yourself and many entrepreneurs, risk takers and such, know that sometimes you will fail and as long as you learn from the failure, that’s no bad thing.
So, tell me what you are doing now with automotive technology. I can see that you’re building cars in your facility. They are electric cars, aren’t they Jack?
Jack: I completed an internal combustion engine car in July of 2020. I spent five years on it. I’ve also built an EV and a hybrid and am planning on a third in 2023. The EV and hybrid I built are test mules and essentially motors and wheels, steering software, power electronics, and controllers to try to do discovery in the area of EVs. And one of the things that has come to light are the batteries.
There are two types of motors in an EV. You get what’s called an AC induction motor or brushless DC motor. The technology is cut and dry, there’s nothing secret about them. Tesla claims to have invented the AC induction motor in the 19th century, so it’s been around a long time. Brushless DC motors came about 25-30 years ago. No big technological leap between these brushless DC fans of computer GPUs and what’s in an EV. But what has evolved very quickly is the battery. What we are doing is trying to find a new utilization model for the battery, and that’s what I’m attempting to do in the next phase of my efforts here, and that is to have a load battery now. I can’t say that this is entirely my idea here. I went and visited Eric Buell of Buell Motorcycles a couple years ago to see his factory. I love motorcycles, and anything with an engine and wheels in it, except airplanes.
Roger: I’ve got to tell you, I am having the most fun now in the last seven years of running my own business which is all about electric vehicles. It’s just been such fun and I learned so much from encounters like this with you.
You mentioned GPUs. I’ve gone to a GPU event with Nvidia for a couple of days and was getting my head around what they did, and what they could possibly do in an automotive. It was fascinating. When did you get into understanding that there was this other language, this computer code that could do extraordinary things? How did that come to you?
Jack: Well, by the way, Nvidia tuned Oculus’s headsets. Each panel has a set of registers for each pixel because each one is slightly different from how they open and close on an LCD. I went over there to Nvidia and went into the lab near our panel parts and they tuned our panels for us. So that’s my story on programming.
I started coding rather late. I saw the game Tanks when I was 15 and I couldn’t believe it. I said “How are they doing this? How does it know what I’m doing?” At our school we had a computer lab and we had a PDP-11 in there which is a big old mini-computer. This predates personal computers. There was the Sinclair, TRS-80’s and other smaller machines that you could buy a basic programming language disk for and run it but there really wasn’t anything. If you wanted to program you went in and used the PDP-11 and I remember looking in there and thinking I don’t know if I fit in here because these are the geeks. I know I’m a little bit on the geeky side but I didn’t know that I would understand how to do it. But I started probably when I was 18, and that was in basic TRS-80.
The first commercial program I wrote was when I was 18, and it was for the Navy. It was a plotter controller for plotting. Plotters used to be these physical pens with little motors that moved them and drew things. After that, I just got deeper and deeper, and this preceded C. The C program comes from my alma mater, Berkeley. I’ve done a bunch of Fortran stuff, BT100 Terminals and if they were crowded you had to use punch cards.
I learned about languages to C, which is very similar to Pascal, but C ran on units, which is what we were using for our system programming. Then I got a PC and a basic compiler for a PC so I started writing stuff on a PC for school.
From that I went into entertainment. I walked right into video game engineering, starting at Kodak. I’m principally a hardware engineer and I didn’t really take too many programming classes in college because I wanted to do hardware. I really didn’t know how a computer worked, what a register was, RAM, and SVRAM. I learned this on the job. I tell everyone, when you get out of college you have a degree, but you really don’t know much. You’ve got the basics, and you’ve proven that you can go around the track and go over the hurdles, but you really learn how to do things on the job when there’s pressure on you to meet a deadline and you’re forced to take a deep dive into it. For me that is where I did all my learning, and thankfully my employers saw that I was a benefit to the team. I always tell everyone that for programming you don’t need a college degree. It’s not like that, it’s a trade almost, and you can get good at it. I have a degree, but not everyone I work with took programming in college. They worked at it because they love it and they’re passionate about it.
Roger: Here’s the thing, I’m listening carefully to this because my old boss, Peter Brookes-Smith from Audi, a car company I worked at, has recently set up a non-profit helping ex-military guys learn to code. He is finding that a lot of these guys are very good at it because they are disciplined, focused, and they like to get things done. These are people with no background at all with an opportunity. Peter’s a lovely guy and is spending his own money doing this. He’s made money too doing software development and other stuff. He’s kind of like you, as a believer in giving back.