They Like Tilting at Windmills

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When they've already changed the world, what are two brothers supposed to do as retirement looms? For Ben and Harold Rosen, the answer is to try to do it again.

The Louisiana-bred, Caltech-educated Rosens have embarked on their biggest challenge ever--to produce a clean, efficient and powerful automotive power source that will do nothing less than replace the internal combustion engine.

If that sounds familiar, it is. There have been countless schemes to rid the world of the noxious power plant. Yet the sturdy engine, repeatedly refined since it was developed by Gottlieb Daimler in 1896, has survived all such assaults.

But the Rosens, working out of a modest research lab in Woodland Hills, Calif., with a small staff and budget, are no ordinary tinkerers. And their approach--a hybrid electric system that combines a gas-burning turbogenerator, essentially a miniature jet engine, with an exotic flywheel that stores energy like a battery--is getting serious, albeit skeptical, attention.

Ben, 63, is a bona fide Silicon Valley legend. A onetime engineer turned Wall Street analyst turned high-tech venture capitalist, he helped finance more than 80 start-up companies, including such powerhouses as Compaq Computer and Lotus Development. Worth more than $100 million, he remains chairman of Compaq, which three years ago surpassed IBM as the world's largest maker of personal computers.

Harold, 70, is a gifted inventor and celebrated former Hughes engineer. He pioneered the development of geostationary satellites that have made today's instant global telephone and television communications possible. He holds more than 50 patents.

Such credentials give the Rosens instant credibility, nor does it hurt to have Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen among their investors. Some think they have the technological and entrepreneurial heft to accomplish in a few more years what Detroit says is unlikely, if not impossible, in the foreseeable future.

"I would put a bigger bet on Rosen & Co. succeeding than I would on the car companies and the national labs," said David McLellan, former chief engineer of Corvette and now a consultant. "They are smart and agile."

With luck, the Rosens say they can begin mass-producing the power source for a lean, green and mean machine within six years. Unlike electric vehicles now hitting the road, their approach promises no compromise on creature comforts or performance: double the driving range of today's gasoline-powered cars, virtually pollution-free, and with sports car-like acceleration.

"We are trying to change the fundamental technology of the automobile," said Ben, who admits that the ambitious endeavor is far from a sure thing.

The Rosens' emergence on the automotive scene highlights some of the undercurrents roiling the auto industry as the nation moves from the Industrial Age into the Information Age. Autos increasingly are controlled by electronics. Engines tune themselves and electronic gadgetry abounds. Design and manufacturing are dictated by microchips and software.

Sharp Contrast to Ways of Detroit

As cutting-edge players in computers and communications, the Rosens bring a high-tech, entrepreneurial approach to the auto that contrasts--and collides--with the risk-averse, necessarily cautious ways of Detroit.

"In the computer industry, it's normal not only to accept change but to seek change and use it as a competitive advantage," said Ben. "In the auto industry, there is a resistance to change. They gradually change the product rather than radically change the product. That's hard to come to grips with."

The problem of powering the automobile has befuddled some of the world's best minds and most powerful corporations for decades, despite huge investments. Indeed, such promising experimental engines as the Stirling, Orbital and two-stroke never lived up to their billing. Even Mazda's proven Wankel rotary engine appears to be fading from use.

Given history, high costs and intense competition, Detroit insiders consider the Rosen undertaking a long shot. "The odds are probably 1 in a hundred," said David Cole, executive director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

Ben, interviewed recently in Atlanta where he outlined his plans to auto dealers at an industry symposium, conceded: "Skepticism is appropriate."

Big Three Efforts Prove Fruitless

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler each has done research into flywheel technology but dropped the efforts as unpromising at this time because of safety and cost concerns. Private firms, such as United Technologies, as well as several national laboratories continue to study flywheel feasibility.

Already the Rosens have found the research and development much more difficult than expected. Two attempted road tests of the new hybrid system ended in embarrassment last year when the vehicle wouldn't start.

Finally, on Jan. 7, a 1993 Saturn coupe equipped with the turbogenerator-flywheel contraption completed a spin on a racetrack in the Mojave Desert.

"This demonstration is akin to the first flight of a jet aircraft," gushed the rumpled, dark-haired Harold, who celebrated the event with a toast of champagne with his younger brother.

Harold, a vigorous man who does push-ups by the dozens and retains Zap of American Gladiators fame as a personal trainer, came up with the idea for the Rosen system. As a vice president of Hughes Aircraft, he was exposed to General Motors' efforts to develop an electric vehicle in the early 1990s. (GM bought Hughes in 1985 and in January announced the sale of the unit's defense business.)

Battery technology, however, limits the range of GM's car, which went on sale in California as the EV1 in December. Rosen went looking for a better alternative and stumbled across a Tarzana company developing a small turbine generator.

He believed the turbine could be used in a hybrid-electric vehicle, but his idea was rejected by GM because it was committed to a battery-powered car. So, in 1993, he turned to his entrepreneurial brother.

Ben, who lives in a posh New York suburb, was just winding down his involvement in a venture capital firm. He had taken up golf and got his handicap down to 18. His brother's call got the juices flowing again.

"I like tilting at windmills," said Ben, a dapper, good-natured raconteur known to entertain friends by balancing a chair on his nose. "My brother likes to do things that other people think are impossible."

The brothers were born and reared in New Orleans in an orthodox Jewish household. Their parents divorced when Ben was 7, and his older brother became a surrogate father.

Harold was quite a role model. After serving in World War II, he became an electrical engineer with degrees from Tulane and Caltech. He worked for Raytheon and Hughes, where in the early 1960s he figured out how a satellite could be put in an orbit while maintaining continuous contact with a fixed point on earth. The geostationary satellite made possible modern global communications with uninterrupted transmission of audio and visual signals. He has been honored with the nation's highest science awards.

Yet his achievements are overshadowed by those of his younger brother, who also became an engineer--via Caltech and Stanford--but decided aerospace was not his calling. Instead he earned an MBA from Columbia and soon was analyzing the emerging computer industry for Morgan Stanley & Co.

Although a star Wall Street analyst, Ben was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug in 1981. He formed a venture capital firm with L. J. Sevin to fund emerging computer companies. Their successes, besides Compaq and Lotus, gave rise to the likes of Borland International, Cypress Semiconductor and Silicon Graphics.

Ben proved himself more than just a savvy technological talent scout. When Compaq stumbled six years ago--its stock fell from $70 to $20 a share--he engineered a management shakeout that reinvigorated the firm.

So the Rosens view their new automotive venture as no more daunting than Compaq's battle with IBM for supremacy in personal computers or Hughes' race with AT&T; to dominate the satellite business.

The Rosens' first step into the auto world was to acquire the turbine company, renaming it Capstone Turbine. They brought in new management and began to perfect the technology.

To speed their entry into the auto arena they formed Rosen Motors, and envisioned becoming a full-fledged auto maker. They soon realized that the capital investment necessary to design and build cars was too risky and immense.

The Rosens now see themselves as a future major supplier. They dream of Dodges, Fords, Mercedes and other models rolling down the road with "Rosen Powered" insignias, much like 'Intel Inside" signifies computers powered by the Intel Corp. microchip.

Ben was surprised at the complexity and molasses-like pace of the auto business.

"I come from information technology where early gratification and low capital investment is the rule," he said. "This is just the opposite--lots of capital and much delayed gratification."

Then again, manufacturing autos is more complex than computers. The scale of operations is immense--hundreds of factories, the extended enterprise of thousands of supply firms, the entrenched, unionized work force, a vast regulatory web. And the nature of the products is different: Auto makers are obsessed with safety, liability and warranty issues. A potential lethal weapon that takes three years and up to $3 billion to develop, travels at high speed and contains hundreds of moving parts, the auto is not brought to market casually.

(Detroit is understandably wary about the flywheel itself: It spins at up to 55,000 revolutions per minute, creating massive centrifugal forces. If it fails--perhaps knocked off its axis by a collision or bad pothole--the wheel can disintegrate, spitting shrapnel about with deadly force.)

Says Cole: "It's one thing to have a patent or a prototype and quite another to have a commercial product."

Meanwhile, the auto makers are in no rush to embrace risky new technologies that could render obsolete their investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in the internal combustion engine. Ford alone has nine North American factories producing 3.9 million engines a year and employing 12,600.

But there are powerful forces driving change. First, governments around the world are tightening air pollution rules. Next, oil is a finite resource that will become more costly. Last, technology is now evolving that makes better engines possible.

The Rosens are gearing up just as U.S., Japanese and European auto makers are dedicating more resources than ever to alternate-fuel vehicles. In the United States alone, the auto companies and federal agencies are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it taxpayer money, into research for advanced batteries, fuel cells, flywheels and electric-hybrid technologies.

Through the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicle, the Big Three auto makers are working with the national laboratories and federal government to develop vehicles that are affordable and can deliver up to 80 mpg. But they aren't even required to deliver prototypes until the year 2003, pushing production out to 2010 or beyond.

The Rosens want to be in mass production by 2003. They figure their lean size and budget--they have spent $13 million so far and plan $10 million to $15 million in outlays this year--provide a sense of urgency that gives them a huge advantage over the bureaucracy-ridden auto companies.

Seeking to Provide Competitive Edge

By perfecting the technology, the Rosens hope to convince some auto maker that it can gain a competitive edge in the marketplace by putting this new powertrain under the hood.

The Rosens claim their system can double or triple fuel economy to 45 to 80 mpg, depending on a car's size. It also can generate up to 240 horsepower and reach 0 to 60 mph in under seven seconds.

"Theirs is by far the most promising alternative powertrain I have ever seen," said John Casesa, an auto analyst for Wertheim Schroder in New York, who recently toured the Rosen facility in the San Fernando Valley. "It has the potential to change car technology forever. It's enormously exciting."

Turbines have been under study by auto makers for decades, but present major problems of size, noise and efficiency. The Rosens believe they have overcome these obstacles, and Ford is testing the Capstone turbine.

"It is elegantly simple," says Harold.

The flywheel presents an even bigger technical challenge.

Basic flywheels have been around for centuries. In its simplest form, a potter's wheel is a flywheel in the form of a stone that picks up energy as it spins from a foot kick. But making an industrial flywheel involves the intricacies of vacuums, magnetic bearings, exotic materials and centrifugal force.

The flywheel in the Rosen system is designed to store excess energy from the turbogenerator as well as recover energy from braking. The Rosens say two-thirds of the wasted energy can be recovered, increasing fuel efficiency by up to 25% in highway driving and 50% in stop-and-go traffic.

The Rosen flywheel consists of 4.5 miles of tiny carbon fiber wrapped around a titanium hub and steel shaft. It spins in a vacuum to minimize friction. The flywheel is mounted vertically on an electric motor-generator, and is encased in a steel sphere about the size of a beach ball.

"The flywheel has been the most challenging development I've ever been involved in," said Harold.

Safety, Cost Issues Key Concerns

How to overcome the safety threat? The Rosens believe they have designed a fail-safe containment system. Already they have conducted nine "burst" tests without having the flywheel's reinforced steel shell penetrated.

But the safety concerns alone are likely to prompt any car company to conduct extensive testing that could take years before putting such a powertrain on the road. The Big Three have explored flywheels and never been satisfied on safety and cost problems.

"I'm a bit reluctant to believe that the Rosen brothers have created a breakthrough that has overcome these flywheel difficulties," said Tom Kizer, Chrysler's executive engineer of powertrain and electrical engineering.

The Rosens are not surprised by the nay-saying. They insist all the technological problems are solvable. The bigger hurdle is economic--getting an auto maker willing to take a chance on mass-producing the Rosen system in sufficient quantities to get costs in line with today's engines.

With the successful test in January, the Rosens have proved the concept. They now are trying to produce a prototype using a Mercedes E-Class sedan. Once that is completed they hope to build up to 100 test vehicles to run a pilot program in real world conditions.

The final hurdle is finding an auto partner.

"The challenge I set for myself is to get one customer," said Ben. "All I have to do is find another dreamer."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Rosen Hybrid Electric

The hybrid-electric powertrain being developed by Ben and Harold Rosen uses two power sources--a turbogenerator and a flywheel. The combination creates a vehicle with the simultaneous capabilities of high acceleration, increased fuel economy and nearly zero emissions. The powertrain consists of four major units: (1) a turbogenerator, (2) a flywheel motor-generator, (3) an electric drive motor and (4) an electronic control.

TURBOGENERATOR / WHAT IT DOES:

* Provides power needed to maintain the vehicle's cruising speed.

* Burns small amounts of unleaded gasoline.

SPECS:

* 165-pound unit.

* Consists of a turbine and electric generator connected by a single rotating shaft, its only moving part.

* Air cooled.

* No lubrication.

* Emissions minimized by a catalytic combuster.

FLYWHEEL / WHAT IT DOES:

* Supplies surge power for rapid acceleration, such as in startup or passing.

* Stores excess energy from the turbogenerator

* Recovers kinetic energy from braking, increasing the vehicle's fuel efficiency by 25% or more.

SPECS:

* Carbon-fiber

* Rotates in a vacuum at up to 55,000 rpm

* Contained in a reinforced steel sphere.

ELECTRONIC CONTROLLER

* Brains of the unit, selecting the blend of flywheel and turbine power that provides the optimum driving

ELECTRIC DRIVE MOTORS

* Delivers juice to the wheels.

* Connected to both the turbogenerator and the flywheel

Source: Rosen Motors

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
70°