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Electric cars: Episode 7 of Setapp’s original Ahead of Its Time Podcast

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17 min read

Welcome to the seventh episode of Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp about the tech underdogs no one realized would shape the future. 

Just like every podcast in the world, we have to discuss Elon Musk at some point. Well, almost. This episode focuses on electric cars and why we might need to make them…smaller.

First you’ll hear the story of Wally Rippel, who hated the LA smog so much that he went all the way to create the first commercially available electric vehicle. Which later became the basis for numerous ingenious EV projects, including Wim Ouboter’s micro scooters. Wim is an advocate of the so-called ‘micro-mobility’ philosophy and we might have a lot to learn from him regarding environmentally friendly commuting. Without further ado, let’s hit play! 

Find the episode here: 

Show notes: 

Transcript

Wim Ouboter (00:05):

What you have to see is that electric cars, they have a very interesting acceleration because you don't have to shift. They go immediately, the power comes up.

Julia Furlan (00:15):

That's Wim Ouboter, he's an inventor and entrepreneur who may just change the way you think about electric vehicles.

Wim Ouboter (00:22):

Once you have been driving an electric car, you don't want to go back to a combustion engine. You don't want to do it. The beauty about if you go downhill and you're producing electricity, is a good feeling.

Julia Furlan (00:34):

In an age where gas powered vehicles account for nearly half of greenhouse gas emissions within the transportation sector, EVs are seen as a way to help slow global warming. And while climate change is a complex problem that won't be solved by any one policy or technology, electric cars seem to be doing their part. In the last decade, the EV industry grew by leaps and bounds. In 2021 alone, more than six million EVs were sold worldwide. That's twice as many as 2020. Tesla has arguably done more for the EV industry than any other company out there. But Wim thinks that the next big thing for EVs is making them smaller. He's created a whole new kind of EV, a miniature electric bubble car named the Microlino.

Wim Ouboter (01:23):

This car has a lot of emotion. To people that are not car addicts, we have some feedback also from younger generations saying, "Wow, finally, a new concept."

Julia Furlan (01:36):

When it comes to electric cars, this less is more philosophy that Wim is using isn't just environmentally friendly. It's stylistically unique and more functional for navigating the streets of those dense European city centers. But the common link between the Microlino, Tesla and the new generation of EVs on the market today is that they owe a debt to the electric vehicle pioneers who came before them. And there are a few pioneers as accomplished as Wally Rippel. In the 1990s, Wally was a part of the team behind General Motors groundbreaking electric car, the EV1. It had the design, it had the buzz. What Wally's EV1 lacked was the right timing.

Wim Ouboter (02:17):

He was too early and that's the time to market. It's incredible. Now the batteries are cheaper. You have now supports for normal cars, electric, you have charging station. If you were too early, that's a really a pity, but now the time is right.

Julia Furlan (02:42):

I'm Julia Furlan. And this is Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp, a show about the tech underdogs no one realized would shape the future. Setapp's versatile app subscription service empowers you to step into a new era of productivity.

Wally Rippel (03:01):

Well, I was at the Smithsonian in connection with the BBC. And the Smithsonian EV1 was right behind me as I was being interviewed.

Julia Furlan (03:13):

That's Wally Rippel, the electric vehicle pioneer who helped build the prototype for GM's EV1.

Wally Rippel (03:19):

That EV1 looked like it had come off the production line one or two hours prior. There wasn't a spec of dust on the car. It was just absolutely in mint condition. It was nice to look at it and bring back memories. I had driven it many times.

Julia Furlan (03:33):

The EV1 was the world's first commercially available electric vehicle of the modern era. When it was released in 1996, it developed a cult following. But what most of its devotees didn't know was the remarkable story behind some of the EV1's key technology.

Julia Furlan (03:54):

Rewind to Southern California in the mid 1960s when Wally was an undergrad. He'll never forget that one particular day when he was gazing out his classroom window.

Wally Rippel (04:05):

I was in a history class at Caltech. It was a very smoggy day. And for most days you could not see the mountains. And you had a burning sense in your eyes. That's what got me started in thinking about what can I do, what can Caltech do in dealing with the problem of smog?

Julia Furlan (04:28):

The world was just starting to understand the correlation between global warming, the burning of fossil fuels, and the extent that gas powered cars contribute to the problem. Wally resolved that a new type of car could help slow this new trend.

Wally Rippel (04:40):

I decided to convert a vehicle to electric drive and to use it, to walk the talk. I looked at different possibilities and I came up with the idea of a VW bus, which I converted to electric drive during my junior year.

Julia Furlan (05:01):

Wally set about converting a 1959 VW microbus, replacing its internal combustion system with electric drive powered by golf cart batteries, 1900 pounds of them. Soon, his newly transformed EV could be seen humming around campus and Hollywood with a range of 50 to 60 miles and a top speed of 57 miles per hour, Wally wanted his new invention to get the public excited about electric vehicles.

Wally Rippel (05:30):

So I had the crazy idea of challenging MIT to a cross country electric car race. And I heard through the grapevine that what happened is the MIT Dean got this letter and said, "That's the dumbest idea I've ever heard of." But some students at MIT thought, "Well, if the Dean thinks it's a dumb idea, maybe it really is cool."

Julia Furlan (05:56):

And with that, it was on. MIT built their electric car, rules for the race were drafted and judges were selected.

Julia Furlan (06:06):

On August 26th, 1968 at precisely the same moment they were off. Wally's Caltech car headed east, the MIT car headed west. First car to reach the others campus was the winner. It was dubbed the great electric car race.

Wally Rippel (06:25):

There was camera people from all three networks, NBC, ABC, CBS. And they were all expecting to hear the sound of an engine start, at least consciously. And they heard this countdown, the countdown was given like NASA would do. And at T minus zero, I accelerated and these cameramen jumped out of the way, they were shocked at the car took off without any pre-warning sound.

Julia Furlan (06:53):

The race began as smooth as silk for Wally and the Caltech team. With no charging stations like we have today, the team had arranged to have electric companies open up their utility covers and let them connect directly to live lines. Then just outside of Seligman, Arizona, about 400 miles into their trip, something went wrong.

Wally Rippel (07:13):

So I was behind the wheel. There was a gentle downgrade, few seconds after I had downshifted, there was a loud thud in the car decelerated very rapidly as if I jammed on the brakes. What happened is that the motor blew up because of the speed. So I told the team, I said, "Look, I think we're going to have to forfeit this. We're not going to be able to continue on." One of the follow car members said to me, he said, "Wally, we're going to go to MIT, no matter what." He said, "Either we're going to drive this car or we're going to push it."

Julia Furlan (07:53):

They made some calls and made arrangements to fly a new motor out to Wally and his team. They were out of the race for 23 hours, but they still had a chance. News reports were coming in over the radio that MIT was also having engine issues. Back on the road, Wally's team slept in their car, taking turns driving, stopping only to charge the vehicle. The hours turned into days and on September 4, at about seven-thirty in the morning, Wally’s VW bus rolled onto the MIT campus and crossed the finish line. They had traveled over 3000 miles in roughly 9 days.

Wally Rippel (08:29):

So it ended up, we won the race by half an hour, and that was a good feeling, but it was a better feeling just to have crossed the country.

Julia Furlan (08:39):

The great electric car race of 1968 was just the beginning of Wally's love affair with electric cars. He continued working on EV technology for the next two decades, with the jet propulsion lab and the firm, AeroVironment.

Julia Furlan (08:56):

Then in 1990, California passed its zero emissions vehicle mandate or ZEV mandate, which required 10% of all American built cars to be emission free by 2003. If the big auto manufacturers wanted to continue to market their cars in California, they needed to come up with an electric car concept. So General Motors asked Wally and his team to build a prototype.

Wally Rippel (09:20):

I had a laboratory where I was doing this work of AC drive, designing equipment, and then running tests and so on. And when we went through the math the final time, the conclusions were even with the lead acid battery and the technology we had at the time, we could make an electric vehicle.

Julia Furlan (09:38):

After Wally proved it could be done, he handed it off to his colleague to help him get it done.

Wally Rippel (09:43):

The propulsion was done entirely by Alan Cocconi and AeroVironment. I was working as a consultant on that. And Alan designed this stuff and built it hands on, single handedly.

Julia Furlan (09:59):

They named the prototype The Impact.

Wally Rippel (10:02):

The name Impact of course was humorous because some people thought now that's perhaps the worst name for an automobile is impact. I think Johnny Carson made some fun of it on TV about the GM Impact. Yeah. And he said, "Well, maybe Ford's going to come along with something called the whiplash."

Julia Furlan (10:24):

Regardless of the razzing they got for the name, the car itself was no joke. Powered by 32 rechargeable batteries, the Impact could reach an impressive top speed of 183 miles per hour. Finally, the big day came when Wally got to test drive the impact on the drag track with Alan Cocconi.

Wally Rippel (10:45):

So you get a pass going into this place that normally would have crowds of people. So when I went there, Alan was there, the impact was a two seater. So he said, "Okay, you get behind the wheel." And so I did a maximum acceleration. And for me it was sensory overload because I wanted to keep track of voltage and current and speed and RPM and stuff like that. And stuff is flashing on a computer screen. And I'm trying to also experience this. Driving the impact for the time was one of those very special moments where things that you had been thinking about, things that you had done on paper, and now seeing it all come to life and work. And this is what makes engineering an exciting thing.

Julia Furlan (11:35):

In 1996, the Impact, now named the EV1 was released to the world. It was a two-seater with an aerodynamic teardrop shaped body. The interior control console was designed to give the driver the feeling that they were commanding the cockpit of an aircraft. Its battery provided a range of 60 to 80 miles. And the acceleration was impressive.

Wally Rippel (12:00):

I took the lead on some things with the motor design. So there is a sound from the motor, it's somewhat the sound of a jet turbine starting. And there's an excitement that creates, and we could do zero to 60 in eight seconds. That was like going to the moon. That made it exciting. This is not just a vehicle that will get from point A to B, but it'll be fun to drive. The people who test drove the vehicle, even people who were naysayers of electric vehicles became enthusiasts for electric vehicles.

Julia Furlan (12:35):

Big time Hollywood stars from actor Sylvester Stallone to comedian Jay Leno were high profile advocates. Motor Trend magazine said that the EV1 was the world's only electric vehicle that drives like a real car. An automobile magazine applauded its smooth delivery of power.

Julia Furlan (12:53):

But GM responded to the fanfare with muted enthusiasm. They claimed in spite of the passionate and loyal following, there wasn't sufficient demand. But many critics weren't buying it. After all, GM only developed the EV1 to appease emissions regulators. In fact, GM joined forces with other automakers to fight those regulations in court. Many viewed this as an act of self-sabotage. This pressure resulted in the relaxation of emissions requirements and GM eventually abandoned the EV1 altogether. Whether there wasn't really sufficient demand or GM deliberately undermined the project, one thing is obvious, developing and launching EV technology wasn't cheap. But in spite of that, Wally insists GM's biggest mistake is that they didn't appreciate how good their electric vehicle could be.

Wally Rippel (13:50):

The statement that GM makes that "Look, we were losing money on this," I can understand that and I empathize with that. But what I fault them for is not understanding technology well enough, not having technological or corporate vision to the point that they could say, "Yes, we're losing money on it now, but we're going to put together the world's best engineering team to develop the next generation of electric vehicle technology." They did not do that. They saw the EV1, as it was at that point in history. But they didn't appreciate how good it could get. They would be way ahead now. They wouldn't have been playing catch up to Tesla. Tesla would've been thinking, do we have a chance to compete with GM?

Julia Furlan (14:32):

GM only produced about 1100 EV1's. None of which they sold outright to the few drivers who were lucky enough to get their hands on one. In 2003, when the final EV one leases expired, GM sent almost every car to the crusher. Among the faithful, it was an emotional loss.

Wally Rippel (14:51):

It was the attempted destruction of an idea. It was my life stream in terms of the work that I was doing. But probably the most painful part and that remains to this day is that we were destroying something that we needed to survive on this planet.

Julia Furlan (15:11):

There were protests and backlash. There was even a mock funeral for the car held at a cemetery in Hollywood. And Wally was among those who stood up to give a eulogy.

Wally Rippel (15:20):

I was one of the speakers there. And I couldn't help, but I spoke about the bright future of electric vehicles. The good news of course, is that the electric car is not dead. The electric car of the time was eliminated. But as I said, when I was there, you cannot kill a good idea. So it will live on

Julia Furlan (15:47):

By the time while he was eulogizing the EV1, he was already taking the few of electric vehicles into his own hands. In 1992, after delivering the Impact to GM, Wally co-founded a company called AC Propulsion. Here, he helped build an electric sports car named the tzero. The tzero would never go into production, but it did inspire three men who would eventually bring EV technology to the masses. Their names were Marc Tarpenning, Martin Everhard, and Elon Musk, also known as the co-founders of Tesla. In 2006, Wally joined the Tesla team and helped incorporate the tzero technology into their very first electric car. The electric torch had been passed. From Caltech's VW microbus to GMs EV1 to Tesla, with Wally Rippel as the constant. All of which paved the way for a whole new generation of EVs.

Wim Ouboter (16:51):

If you have Tesla, it's a love brand. Now, why are these love brands? These are love brands because they're bringing out a certain emotion. And with the Microlino, we definitely bring out the emotion.

Julia Furlan (17:02):

If you wonder what the next generation of EVs might look like, ask Wim Ouboter. Wim is a Swiss entrepreneur who believes less is more when it comes to electric vehicles. His new EV, the Microlino embodies that philosophy and is poised to revolutionize urban mobility. Like the EV1, the Microlino is also a sporty two seater, but Wim's EV has a significantly different look. Passengers enter this micro car through a single front door that doubles as the face of the vehicle. This design was inspired by the popular Italian made bubble cars that cruised around Europe back in the 1950s. It's an unconventional design by today's standards. And that's exactly why it's getting people's attention. It's a lesson Wim's wife learned the first time he took her for a test drive.

Wim Ouboter (17:54):

So I drive with her to Zurich and you see these people waving at me and there were also cute girls waving at me in my car. And my wife's looking at me and said, "You know what? What's going on? You know them?"

Wim Ouboter (18:10):

"No, no, no. It's the car. It's the car. The car has something about it." Well, I think she didn't believe me. I said, "Yeah, let's do this. I get out of the car. You make a spin. I'll wait here for you. Okay."

Wim Ouboter (18:23):

She came, went for a spin and she came back and said, "Unbelievable, unbelievable." Then we parked there and immediately, you have 10 people standing to the car and said, "What is this?"

Julia Furlan (18:32):

Wim's enterprise began with a simple question. How much car do you really need for your daily commute? His vehicles are based on his principle of micro mobility, a concept he first came up with in Zurich, back in the 1990s.

Wim Ouboter (18:52):

First of all, you have to imagine, 26 years ago, the restaurants, the hot kitchen actually closed at nine o'clock, this very early. So in order to get some hot food, there was only the sausage place available. And they were grilling their sausages all night long until two o'clock in the morning.

Julia Furlan (19:14):

The trouble was these sausage places were just far enough away to feel out of reach.

Wim Ouboter (19:19):

So this was like a micro distance, a distance that is too far to walk, but it is too short to take the bicycle out of the cellar. So that's how I came up with a special device, very small, it's a scooter with two wheels, one in the front, one in the back and a very short base to stand on. And it was fast. It was easy. So that's how I came up with a collapsible scooter.

Julia Furlan (19:47):

When was excited by his new invention. But when he showed his scooter to friends, they gave it lukewarm reviews. Wim was ready to abandon the project. And then something happened.

Wim Ouboter (19:58):

It was in my garage. There's like an open garage where a lot of people have access to it. And I was just parking it there because after my disappointment with my friends, they told me, "Come on, don't do it." And then the kid really took it out and they were driving it and they brought it back to live. And then my wife said, "I'm watching these kids, there is something about it."

Julia Furlan (20:23):

That was enough to inspire Wim, to get his scooter into production. Wim decided to roll the dice and start his own company. He named it Micro Mobility Systems. It's a decision that would change his life forever.

Julia Furlan (20:39):

There's a good chance you've seen or even rode on one of Wim's scooters. In the US, they're called Razor. And in the early two thousands, they sold millions worldwide. A key to Wim's growing success is the idea behind his vehicles. At the heart of it, even if they're fun, they're a form of transport, which got Wim thinking about the daily commute. He was surprised to discover on average cars in Europe are occupied by only 1.2 people traveling just 30 kilometers or about 18 miles per trip. And many of these trips are made in large SUVs. That means people are making lots of short trips in big and nearly empty energy inefficient cars. Wim realized, this obviously isn't a recipe for tackling climate change.

Wim Ouboter (21:33):

It's not that to move from a big gas car to a big electric car. It's not that. It's, we have to move to smaller cars, a lot more smaller cars. And light electric vehicles are definitely going to be the solution. So our main word is really downsize. If you want to save our planet, we must downsize.

Julia Furlan (22:01):

And that's what inspired him to create the Microlino. It's smaller than a car, but of course it's much larger than a scooter. It does zero to 50 in five seconds and can travel up to 140 miles on a single charge. You can charge it using a regular household outlet. And because it's so small and lightweight, it has 50% fewer parts than standard cars. It also uses 65% less energy than other EVs.

Wim Ouboter (22:29):

On top of that, you have some advantage with the front door. That means you can cross park and you means you always find a parking space. And you can easily exit to the sidewalk. And because you have no side doors, you can park one Microlino next to each other, that means you park three cars on one parking lot.

Julia Furlan (22:56):

In 2016, the Microlino very nearly missed its own unveiling. The prototype had arrived just in time for a show in Nuremberg. Everything was falling into place. Then Wim got a phone call.

Wim Ouboter (23:11):

And then a phone call came, "Oh, something happened, something really stupid." And he sent me a picture and this was this wooden box, this was completely damaged on one side. And then he slowly took the wooden part off from that box, and slowly you could see what was in inside. Beautiful our car, but it was completely damaged in one side. And this was a moment that you ask yourself, have I earned this? Why? Why me? Why like this? I mean, how can this happen?

Julia Furlan (23:48):

With no time for repairs before the show, Wim's wife had to brainstorm. Instead of putting the car on a rotating turntable, they put the damaged side against the wall. On the car, they left a note, titled Shit Happens, with the story of how it fell off a forklift during shipping. It was just the spin that they needed.

Wim Ouboter (24:08):

The funny thing is this story for the journalist was a lot more interesting than anything else. So we got a huge coverage on the media because of that story.

Julia Furlan (24:41):

The Microlino's forklift mishap made a great story and attracted all kinds of press attention, a lesson that wasn't lost on another EV entrepreneur.

Wim Ouboter (24:52):

And Elon Musk, when he presented the Cybertruck, he took this ball into the window to explain how strong it is. And he actually broke. That's funny. That was after us by the way, that was after us. So I think Elon Musk learned something from us to make shit happen so that the journalists are going to write about it.

Julia Furlan (25:16):

For Wim, the show in Nuremberg and the shows that followed helped him get the attention of some big players in the automotive industry.

Wim Ouboter (25:22):

Yeah, I mean, definitely for a small company to jump into this shark pool is quite challenging. But it was a big success for us quickly because, I mean the CEO of Mercedes and of Volkswagen shake my hands. I mean, they have realized this is not a joke anymore. This is really something that has to come, small electric cars.

Julia Furlan (25:50):

The first of his Italian made Microlinos are scheduled to hit the road in 2022.

Julia Furlan (25:54):

Wim's Microlino is very much an extension of the micro mobility devices he created in the nineties. In it, he sees potential benefits that much larger EVs simply can't deliver. Like lower CO2 output in production, less energy consumption during use and a range in size that make it a better fit for the average urban commute. It's turning a lot of heads, including Wally Rippel's.

Wally Rippel (26:23):

You can see many advantages. The actual space that it takes on the road will be less, the energy per passenger, if it's only one or two passengers will be less. The technology is probably not so much the issue as the proper marketing. And making something that looks good and has a little bit of character that people will come to love, like they love the EV1.

Julia Furlan (26:48):

Technology and marketing are certainly important, but so is electric vehicle infrastructure, something that was less developed when the EV1 was released in the nineties.

Wim Ouboter (26:57):

I mean, now we have special parking spots for electric cars. We have charging stations. We even say recycling of core batteries now is from my understanding is that 95% can be recycled.

Julia Furlan (27:11):

It may have taken five decades, but Wally can finally see his original vision taking shape.

Wally Rippel (27:17):

The vision I have is that batteries will improve to the point that we'll be able to charge in six minutes for 400 miles of driving, and where the battery will last 30 years. And I can see 10 years from now, electric cars costing less than the gasoline counterpart cars. So reduced cost and improve charging are the cornerstones for the future electric vehicle that will become mainstream.

Julia Furlan (27:46):

Like that electric VW microbus that rolled out of Caltech in 1968, the EV's journey to the mainstream hasn't been smooth or even direct. But today, with new players, new ideas and new creative concepts, the road ahead is wide open.

Julia Furlan (28:06):

I'm Julia Furlan, and this is Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp. Working on your next big thing? Setapp's productivity toolkit will help you stay focused and get stuff done. Head over to setapp.com to see if Setapp can help you bring your ideas to life.

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