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Rotterdam man at forefront of electric car research

Rotterdam man at forefront of electric car research

Bob King's hobby became his passion at GE
Rotterdam man at forefront of electric car research
Bob King behind the electric car he made in 1981 using a Volkswagen chassis and a Bradley GT Body. Inset: King today.
Photographer: provided photo

Bob King would often have to listen to the arguments, and some of them were pretty good.

"The battery in the electric car was equivalent to one quart of gasoline," said King, remembering his research into electric cars back in the late 1960s. "People thought that was ridiculous. So yes, I felt like a lone voice out there. People pretty much laughed at me."

Eventually, however, some people at General Electric began listening to the York, Pennsylvania native and 1969 Grove City College graduate. By 1979,  after King had already been working for GE's military department in Syracuse for 10 years, he was transferred to GE Global Research in Niskayuna. Once there, he devoted 35 years - until his retirement in 2014 - to developing electric vehicles, lessening the world's dependence on fossil fuel.

King, who continues to work as a consultant in the field of hybrid electric vehicle technology, has 128 U.S. patents to his credit. His most impressive work may be in the area of hybrid public transportation (buses), but back in the mid 1970s his first goal was to get his Volkswagen Beetle - which he had converted into an electric vehicle - up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

"It was their first alternate vehicle regatta, and the idea was to see who could climb up Mt. Washington and back down using the least amount of energy," remembered King, interviewed at his home in Rotterdam earlier this month. "My father had been an electrician and I grew up in farm country around machinery and tractors, so I had always been interested in engines, both mechanical and electric. But there weren't a lot of people in the field. I'd go to electric vehicle symposiums and there weren't a lot of us there. None of the major corporations were interested."

It was at one of those symposiums where King ran into a GE program manager, and that meeting led to him being transferred to GE Global Research.

"I was working for GE in Syracuse, but all the electric vehicle stuff I had been doing on my own," said King, who earned his masters in electrical engineering at Syracuse University through a GE program. "But when I got transferred to Schenectady I was able to take what was my hobby and turn it into a full-time job. Initially I got into it because the controls intrigued me, but as I moved forward the environmental concerns also became important to me."

There was plenty of room for improvement in hybrid and electrical vehicles and GE had test programs that kept King busy.

"Much of my work was done with government-funded programs, and when I was done with one I had to write a proposal for another one," said King. "That kept me busy. I also soon realized that the emissions problem with gasoline was going to be a major one, and when the gas shortage hit in 1979 nobody enjoyed sitting in those long lines. I thought research might really take off, but then the price of gas came back down and people weren't as interested."

King's work, however, wasn't going unnoticed. Gene Rowland had shown up at the Global Research in 1977 to manage the electric and hybrid vehicle program and two years later hired King.

 "We had just won a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy to produce test vehicles, and I had heard how Bob, who was working for GE in Syracuse, had built his own EV. He came for an interview and we hired him. He became a valuable member of the team and made many contributions to the field. He has a number of patents that were later used by companies like Toyota."

When Rowland left that department a few years later, Mike Ciccarelli took over.

"Bob was basically the lead engineer on most of the programs," said Ciccarelli. "He was a very hard worker who put in long hours. It was really a labor of love for him and he was our mainstay as far as the hardware went. I think he knows as much about electrical vehicles as anyone in the world."

King's work ethic also impressed his colleagues.

"Bob was quiet, but he was a very hard worker and very focused on what he was doing," said Lembit Salasoo, a fellow electrical engineer who worked with King in the 1990s and is still working at GE Global Research. "If you wanted to talk to him about something, you basically had to walk with him as he was going from place to place to have that conversation.

"A lot of what Bob developed back in the late '70s has finally entered the mainstream," continued Salasoo. "Electric vehicles weren't always a big deal for GE, right or wrong, but Bob felt it was the right thing to do, and based on his personal enthusiasm for the program he got things done."

In 1997, electric vehicle research really heated up when the Toyota Prius came out.

"It was introduced in the U.S. a couple of years later and that really woke everybody up," remembered King. "Before that I had to answer why we were spending all this time researching electric vehicles. The price of fuel fluctuates, the energy crisis can come and go, but we all knew by then that the emissions problem wasn't going to go away over night. A lot of U.S. companies took a short view. They wanted to know what was going to help profits in the next quarter or next year. Toyota was thinking five, 10 years down the road."

These days, the view down the road seems clear.

"I'm not saying that every vehicle will be electric 10 years from now, but I think every family will have at least one car that is a hybrid," he said. "What I thought would take five years to happen has now taken 25 to 30 years, but it is happening. Some of the technology we developed at the research center is now being used in over half of the world's hybrid vehicles."

King would like to see GE continue to be at the forefront of EV research, but he's not sure that's happening.

"We developed a lot of technology at GE, but I don't think the research is improving or continuing the way I'd like to see it," he said. "I'm optimistic that things will turn around at GE. That may take a while, and it may not ever be quite the way I remember it."


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