Who is Alan Cocconi and why does he matter to the modern EV?

JeffC

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Who is Alan Cocconi, and why does he matter to the modern EV?

Alan is very much at the center of modern EVs. He deserves much credit for being where we are now, but he would probably never seek that credit for himself. Alan is a friend of a friend, and I've gotten to know a little about him through my friend, through books about the EV1 like "The car that Could" and elsewhere.

For anyone who has seen the movie War Games, the radio controlled Pterodactyl is something Alan built, probably when he was at Aerovironment. Aerovironment is Paul McCready's very cool company that did the Gossamer Penguin and Gossamer Abatross human powered aircraft among many other very cool things mostly to do with aircraft and pushing the limits of efficiency. The latter set a world record by flying across the English Channel with one very good athlete pedalling it. Aerovironment is strongly associated with NASA Jet Propulsion Lab and Caltech. It's arguably a spinoff.

While at Aerovironment, Alan built the motor electronics for the Impact, which was the Hughes/GM EV prototype/show car that GM developed into the legendary EV1. One of the changes GM made for EV1 was to substitute IGBT transistors for the MOSFET power transistors Alan used in Impact. MOSFETS when used in amplifier circuits like AC motor controllers have a tendency to have cascade failures. When one would fail, it would blow up all the other ones. MOSFETs have some nice characteristics, but IGBTs are more rugged. Modern EVs and much power electronics in general use IGBTs, though apparently at least the Performance version of Model 3 uses Silicon Carbide transistors which are harder to make, but electrically and thermally superior to IGBTs. In particular, they're more efficient and faster.

Alan had access to Lithium ion battery science via the satellite industry, which is very active both in Southern Califorina and Silicon Valley. Modern satellites really became practical due to solar cells and the Lithium ion battery, and great effort was made to understand how to make the batteries last as long as possible in space. All of that benefitted EVs. Depth of discharge in particular was found to greatly affect battery life. (Charge your EV every night if you want to maximize battery life, but charge to 60-90% maximum as needed for your actual daily driving, not 100% except just before very long road trips.)

After his work on Impact at Aerovironment, Alan started his namesake company, AC Propulsion, to build EVs using his distinctive technology. He sought to make a long-range, high-performance EV to shake off the notion that EVs were slow, unattractive and short range. To do this, he took a tube frame sports racing car, added his custom AC induction motor, personally designed motor and charging electronics, and very carefully engineered battery pack using 18650 Lithium ion cells. 18650s were a relatively low-cost, mass-produced commodity item more commonly found in laptop computers and camcorders at the time. As such, they represented a good value for an advanced battery. The resulting T-Zero sports car was spectacular: an EV that was incredibly quick and could go hundreds of miles. A handful of T-Zeros were built, and only a few survive.

When Elon Musk and J.B. Straubel were looking for EV technology to build the original Tesla Roadster, someone suggested that they hook up Martin Eberhard and Ian Wright who were trying to do something similar using AC Propulsion's motors, controllers and 18650 based Lithium ion battery pack from the AC Propulsion T-Zero. These engineers where very impressed with the scorching performance of T-Zero, but they especially appreciated that its Lithium ion battery technology made a modern, long range EV possible. (As an aside, I've met JB and corresponded with Martin and Ian. I have not met Elon yet, but have met his boss at Paypal a couple times.)

Alan had built several ICE conversion EVs using his AC Propulstion technology, for example eBox, based on the Toyota Scion xB. Tom Hanks was one of his eBox buyers. However, Alan was not really interested in commercializing his technology into mass production, so he licensed the technology to Tesla. He also built the drivetrains, electronics and possibly batteries for the original BMW Mini E.

Several key things about modern EVs came more or less directly from Alan, particularly at Tesla: using an AC induction motor, and using commodity 18650 Lithium ion cells. Having careful management of battery temperature and charging also arguably came from Alan. Much of the original Roadster motor, controller and some of the battery pack design came almost directly from T-Zero.

Tesla took the latter to extremes and makes an extremely well-balanced and well-managed battery pack. It's part of the reason for their very long battery life, along with excellent cell manufacturing by Panasonic and cutting edge but durable cell chemistry from their scientists.

In addition, one of Elon's motivations for wanting to create Tesla was the engineering excellence of the EV1. He got a drive in one and understood immediately how it's relative light weight and extremely low aerodynamic drag could help make an excellent and efficient EV. I'm sure he appreciated how advanced its engineering was. In that way, Alan's work towards EV1 is another connection with Tesla.

EV1 had two major generations. Gen I used Panasonic Lead Acid batteries. Range was about 70 miles. Gen II used GM Ovonics Nickel Metal Hydride batteries for a range of about 130 miles. This was a dozen years before the 80 mile Nissan Leaf. A modern Lithium ion battery pack in EV1 would give it a range of 500 miles with no weight increase, in parts due to EV1's very low drag (0.19), small frontal area, and relatively light weight (about 3,100 lbs).

Model 3 is the car that comes nearest to EV1, but still does not match EV1's lower drag coefficient. However Model 3 is a 4 to 5 seater and is larger and more practical than the 2 seat EV1. Model 3 is significantly more advanced in other ways such as automation, software updates, etc.

In terms of core automotive technology, EV1 was about 30 years ahead of it's time. It was the best work some of the world's best engineers and scientists at GM could do at the time. They literally walked around with clipboards trying to find ounces (grams) to take out of the car. They ended up with an Aluminum chassis when they were very rare, Magnesium seat frames, incredibly low drag, etc.

That EV1 was so advanced and efficient was perhaps a major part of the reason so many people were devastated when GM took all the cars back and crushed them, aside from a few that went to museums and university labs. (EV1s were only leased, not sold.) Had it been mediocre few would have cared. GM showed us something incredibly advanced, let us revel in it, then crushed them.

Kudos to GM chairman Bob Stempel who approved EV1 and pushed it through. In another personal connection, my dad was college classmates with Bob at engineering school. Clearly an engineer at heart, Bob made it possible for GM's scientists and engineers do their best work on EV1, and he saw it through to production. As a company GM really did not want to do EVs. Bob had to push the Board of Directors hard to make EV1 happen. When Bob fell out of power at GM, the EV1 program was killed.

With EV1, GM had an massive lead in EV technology, but they threw it all away. Instead of continuing work on EVs, the accountants and businessmen at GM decided to go big on highly-profitable SUVs and pickups. Even today, instead of investing the billions of dollars in profits from SUVs and pickups into the battery factories needed to drive EV costs down, GM uses the money for stock buybacks. EVs are very clearly the future, but GM is too shortsighted to make the investments necessary to build EVs profitably.

Alan Cocconi's work influenced Tesla and the modern EV in many ways, both in AC motor technology and especially in proving that Lithium ion batteries could make an efficient, long range EV possible. Tesla has done the best job of following Alan's lead. Everyone else is catching up, and mostly badly. Even the manufacturers who are still less than enthusiastic about EVs are following the pattern Alan laid down more than two decades ago in their EVs.

Alan was arguably the key developer of the two most influential EVs of the modern age: the EV1 that inspired Musk, Straubel, Eberhard and Wright to start Tesla, and the T-Zero that showed them how to do it in terms of motor, electronics and especially battery. He is an EV pioneer, and his work was highly influential, even if Alan is relatively unknown outside of early EV circles.
 
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JWardell

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Thank you so much for sharing, @JeffC ! The story behind the EV-1's creation (and demise) is incredible. I'm so thrilled that Tesla has finally managed to continue it and truly start to reshape the auto industry.
For those who would like to know more I strongly suggest watching "Who Killed the Electric Car" and its sequel "Revenge of the Electric Car." https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0489037/
 

JeffC

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Thanks for your kind words @JWardell ! "Who Killed the Electric Car" and its sequel "Revenge of the Electric Car" are award winning documentaries centered on the story of the demise of EV1 and the rise of Tesla and Nissan EVs respectively. Must see for any EV fans.

To keep name dropping, ;) I didn't know that the maker of those two films, Chris Paine, was a (tiny) high school acquaintance until he pointed it out to me. Later, we caught up with Chris at the 2011 Palo Alto premier of "Revenge" at the Aquarius theater, a couple blocks away from where we had met Martin and JB when they were debuting the Tesla Roadster at design firm IDEO a few years earlier.

We also attended the debut of WKTEC in support of the local EV community at Santana Row in San Jose in 2006. Our local Electric Auto Association brought some EVs including an original Toyota RAV4 EV for display on the sidewalk plaza in front of the theater. I think they allowed us to hand out educational brochures about EVs too. We took the opportunity to talk with interested folks and educate them about EVs a bit.

It's fun to share stories like this since it helps to humanize the struggle to make excellent EVs. These were all labors of love by people passionate about EVs, including the entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, artists, and builders who make them happen.

P.S. I sent Chris a suggestion for a third film: "Who Killed the Combustion Car". Model 3 and Gigafactory may be the tipping point for EVs. It's an extremely important car that absolutely, positively mainstreams EVs. Gigafactory dropping battery costs below what it costs to build a combustion car within 2 years is absolutely key too. Battery economics drives EV cost. Within a few years it will cost less to build an EV than a fossil car. Model 3 killed the fossil car.
 
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KarenRei

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"Back in the day", the AC-150 was the gold standard of EV powertrains. Anyone who followed EV tech knew of the AC-150 (and wished they could afford one ;) )

AC propulsion also invented the Long Ranger self-steering range-extending trailer. I always thought that was a much better solution than a PHEV, as it's a "take it with you when you need it, leave it behind when you don't, share it, rent it..." no-compromises solution. Obsolete now, of course.

They invented so much, but did so little to commercialize the things that actually mattered. Brilliant engineering, poor business sense.
 
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JeffC

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Indeed Alan's AC-150 motor and controller were arguably the finest one could buy at the time, which is part of what attracted Tesla, BMW, and others to it.

I don't think Alan was particularly interested in doing big business. I think it was a personal choice.

Agree AC Propulsion had excellent technology. Some technologists aren't too interested in business.

The Long Ranger was a generator attached to a pollution-controlled motorcycle engine that hitched to the back of Alan's EVs and provided power to charge/maintain the battery while it was being driven on the road. It was detachable, as you mention, so it could be added as a range extender on long road trips. The advantage is that the added weight could be left behind when not needed, making the whole system more energy efficient. (In EV mode, the ICE in a hybrid is useless mass to haul around, at the cost of energy.)

The resulting serial hybrid by definition would not be as efficient as a parallel hybrid (personal correspondence with Professor Andy Frank), but the ability to not take the generator along when driving locally is interesting. For civilians, I think a fully integrated hybrid is much simpler to use.

P.S. I added a few more paragraphs to my original post above to fill out the story better.
 
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KarenRei

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My view is that any energy savings a PHEV has from not being able to use the engine as a physical drive linkage is offset many times over by the fact that you so rarely haul around its weight. A person also gets a fully uncompromised EV - including uncompromised aerodynamics and range, when not hauling the trailer (aka 99% of the time). Said longer electric range means that it's less often that they'd ever need the trailer at all. Sure, if a person is spending 20+% of their time on long trips, an integrated PHEV is better. But for the typical person who only goes on long trips once every so often, I think the trailer solution is much better... because you spend that other 99% of your time in a better, uncompromised car.

Had pure EV ranges not increased so quickly, and charge times decreased so much, I could easily have seen a world where rental places (like Uhaul in the US) would rent out range-extending trailers like the Long Ranger. Or friends, families or community groups would own one collectively and just share it amongst themselves when needed. Etc. But improvements in EVs have really obsoleted the need for any range extender.
 

Lovesword

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Thank you for sharing @JeffC, a fascinating, interesting story...great, well written read! And thanks @JWardell for the movie titles...will be watching them post haste!

EDIT: I propose we promote Alan Cocconi to Robert Paulson status and chant his name proudly as our mantra!

“His name is Alan Cocconi“
“His name is Alan Cocconi”

:D
 

JeffC

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improvements in EVs have really obsoleted the need for any range extender.
Agree! Fast charging is also a major enabler of long road trips. But it's battery improvements that make the most difference. More battery capacity makes longer trips possible, and makes shorter trips easy.

Also pure EVs are so much simpler than hybrids that they're clearly better. Hybrid sales are actually declining today, while EV sales are growing rapidly. We're at the start of the early adopter curve for EVs.
 
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JeffC

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Thank you for sharing @JeffC, a fascinating, interesting story...great, well written read! And thanks @JWardell for the movie titles...will be watching them post haste!

EDIT: I propose we promote Alan Cocconi to Robert Paulson status and chant his name proudly as our mantra!

“His name is Alan Cocconi“
“His name is Alan Cocconi”

:D
Thanks for your kind words! I loved Chris' movies and hope you do too! (I loved them even before I realized he was an acquaintance, and not just because of the EV topic; they're both very well done.)

Alan is definitely an underrated and relatively unknown EV pioneer. We would not be where we are today without his brilliant efforts!
 
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JeffC

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This video, which includes many clips from Who Killed the Electric Car and Revenge of the Electric Car, gives a similar history and does credit Alan with both the EV1 controller and the T-Zero:


It reminds me that Marc Tarpening was Martin's main partner when he started Tesla Motors, and that it may be Tom Gage, AC Propulsion's president and/or Google's Sergei Brin and Larry Page who put Elon and JB together with Martin and Marc.
 
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lance.bailey

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My view is that any energy savings a PHEV has from not being able to use the engine as a physical drive linkage is offset many times over by the fact that you so rarely haul around its weight. A person also gets a fully uncompromised EV - including uncompromised aerodynamics and range, when not hauling the trailer (aka 99% of the time). Said longer electric range means that it's less often that they'd ever need the trailer at all. Sure, if a person is spending 20+% of their time on long trips, an integrated PHEV is better. But for the typical person who only goes on long trips once every so often, I think the trailer solution is much better... because you spend that other 99% of your time in a better, uncompromised car.

Had pure EV ranges not increased so quickly, and charge times decreased so much, I could easily have seen a world where rental places (like Uhaul in the US) would rent out range-extending trailers like the Long Ranger. Or friends, families or community groups would own one collectively and just share it amongst themselves when needed. Etc. But improvements in EVs have really obsoleted the need for any range extender.
old thread, I stumbled onto it looking for posts about "Revenge of the Electric Car" which I saw last night.

It has been a month-ish with my volvo PHEV and I have to say that the only time i have really "needed" it was the long trip to non-Tesla SC country. I bought the PHEV for 3 reasons.
  1. class 2 trailer hitch capability to haul a camper up to 3500lbs
  2. roof racks to put things up top which won't fit inside (usually from the lumber yard)
  3. long distance trips where the model 3 can't charge part-way fast enough (ie: no SC)
  4. fit in my garage (reality is what it is)
the X can haul, but the falcon doors make putting a sheet of plywood on top tricky, and it has the range, but it won't fit in the garage. so it got 1 and 3. Other contenders, didn't hit all the marks, so for me a PHEV worked well.

Now that the CHADemO adapter is about to be model 3 available, number 3 on the list will disappear because there are enough CHADemO charging stations where SC do not yet live. Maybe in a few years I'll be able to get a Y, and it will have the towing capability for at least a small utility trailer... but until then, the PHEV is a good fit for me, even if I am hauling about a 2nd engine.