Was Exxon The Father Of The Toyota Prius Hybrid?

It started with the first Arab oil embargo in 1973. Suddenly, America didn’t have access to cheap gasoline any more and the term “gas guzzler” first began appearing in news reports. Signs that said “NO GAS” became a regular part of the landscape as drivers fought to get a few precious drops of gasoline. The federal government imposed the first ever fuel economy standards on automakers. From then on, ads for new cars would focus on miles per gallon instead of cubic inches.

Oil embargo led Exxon to hybrid research

After that first oil embargo, Exxon created a research division under the umbrella of its venture capital group known as Exxon Enterprises, Inc, or EEI. The goal was to find an alternative to the gasoline engine. For a brief moment in time, Exxon — soon to become the largest oil company in history — was at the forefront of automotive research. Its goal was to create the world’s first hybrid car, a vehicle that would couple an electric motor with a small gasoline engine to get fuel economy unheard of until that time.

The goal was to enable a large American car like the Chrysler Cordoba (older readers will remember it as the car that featured “fine Corinthian leather”) to get 27 miles per gallon — approximately double what the regular production car was capable of.

New Technology Needed

But before a hybrid could become a reality, it needed a battery and a newfangled gizmo called an inverter. Exxon became a leader in lithium-ion battery research. That quest formed the foundation for the batteries that powered the first portable digital devices like the iPhone.

Today, lithium-ion battery cells are the basis for almost every hybrid and electric car in the world, including the Tesla Model S. Breakthroughs in chemistry and manufacturing techniques have made today’s lithium-ion batteries possible, but the basic research that started it all can largely be traced back to the pioneering work done at Exxon.

The AC Motor Idea

The automotive team at Exxon, called ELVECS, soon decided to concentrate on AC motors for their proposed hybrid powertrain because they are smaller and lighter than DC motors. They are also significantly less expensive to manufacture. The biggest issue was that inverter thing. A battery stores electricity as direct current. The motors the team wanted to use required alternating current. The inverter is the device that converts DC to AC.

In November 1976, ELVECS hired Richard Baker, a former MIT electronics researcher, as a full-time consultant. Baker had developed an alternating current synthesizer, or ACS, that could converted DC to AC. Equally important, it could vary the frequency and voltage of electricity to change the speed of the electric motor. Baker had invented the electronic equivalent of the accelerator pedal.

The Exxon automotive team (L-R John Corcoran, David McCalvin, Luciano Forte and Bernard Dennison) stands in front of the Toyota Cressida that was delivered to Japan. (Courtesy: Keith Dennison)

Other labs had built similar devices, called variable speed drives, but they were too large, inefficient and expensive to be practical. Baker’s inverter was small enough to fit in a car’s trunk. Today, inverters are the size of a glove box, but in the 70s, anything small enough to fit in the trunk was thought of as “compact.”

Building The First Hybrid

The team realized that the research on lithium-ion batteries was going to take years to bear fruit. They wanted to get their prototype on the road as soon as possible so they could pitch it to various car companies. That’s when they outfitted a Chrysler Cordoba with their rudimentary hybrid powertrain plus 10 conventional lead-acid batteries and Baker’s inverter. The car averaged 27 miles a gallon, which just happened to be the target the EPA had set for 1985 model year cars.

The powertrain the team came up with included a 50 horsepower diesel engine from Volkswagen and a 100 horsepower AC electric motor normally used in aircraft. It was one of the earliest uses of an AC motor in an automotive application. “We were young and naïve for the most part. We sort of didn’t know what we didn’t know,” say Kevin White, a member of the team.

Pitching The Hybrid To Detroit

At that time, the Big Three in Detroit were focused on meeting fuel economy targets by building smaller cars. Ford had its Falcon, Chevrolet had the Chevette, and Chrysler had the forgettable Alpine. The Exxon team put together a brochure for the car companies with the bold title, “Detroit, your future can be both as big and as small as America wants it to be” and set off in search of customers.

Interest from the car companies was tepid at best. Detroit suffered from what was known as “Not Invented Here” syndrome. Each of the Big  3 had nothing but disdain for any ideas that didn’t come from within their hermetically sealed fiefdoms. The Exxon team found little interest from the American car industry.

Enter Toyota

But they did from Toyota. “We discussed back and forth with Toyota what they wanted to do,” says team member John Corcoran. Toyota wasn’t that interested in gas mileage at the time, he says. Their focus was on driveability. “We kept talking about fuel economy but Toyota wasn’t interested in that yet. They felt that problem would get resolved. They were more interested in whether it would drive the same as a regular car.”

In autumn 1979, Toyota and Exxon signed a joint technology agreement. A small group of engineers from Toyota’s research facility in Susono, Japan, visited the Exxon Enterprises automotive group in New Jersey to see the Cordoba. Toyota decided to have Exxon outfit a Cressida sedan with the new technology. In early 1980, a white Cressida arrived in New Jersey where the Exxon automotive team installed, tested, and refined its hybrid technology over more than 18 months.

A Hybrid Goes To Japan

In September 1981, Corcoran and the team delivered the electric hybrid to the Toyota research facility in Susono, Japan. They spent two weeks installing and testing the Cressida’s hybrid system. Their Toyota counterparts seemed pleased. The project the two companies had embarked on nearly 3 years earlier produced the roomy, driveable hybrid that Toyota was looking for.

Toyota began selling its Prius hybrid 16 years later. It was developed in part by a team in Susono and equipped with a gasoline engine and a 40 horsepower AC motor. “We shouldn’t overstate Exxon’s role in hybrid vehicles in the long term,” says Corcoran. “But if we planted any seed at all with anyone, it was that the electric motor in a hybrid could be an AC motor.”

Exxon As Innovator

For a while, Exxon was one of the leading technology innovators in the world. But as time went along, oil prices declined and the senior management of the company elected to shut down any activities that did not have to do with pumping and selling oil. Today, the company is accused of deliberately lying about what it knew about carbon emissions and climate change 40 years ago.

But for those decisions in the boardroom, Exxon could have been then what Tesla Motors is today — a vibrant, exciting place to work and a company at the cutting edge of change in the world of transportation. Exxon chose to put profits ahead of people, a decision that could come back to haunt it as it faces civil and criminal legal actions in the courts.

Today, John Corcoran drives a Toyota Prius, a car he may have helped create 40 years ago. “The gates of history turn on tiny hinges,” they say. Corcoran’s team may have been one of those hinges.

Source: Inside Climate News | Photo credit: National Archives

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.