An assault on the battery issue

Prabhakar Patil made hybrids at Ford. Now he's leading development of advanced batteries. When he sees the growing car fleet in his native India, he sees the challenge in reducing CO2.

Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
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DETROIT -- Prabhakar Patil is an officer in the army of automotive engineers working to make fuel-efficient vehicles that people actually want to buy.

Patil, the former head of the hybrid-vehicle program at Ford Motor Co., knows by heart the gloomy statistics on global warming - the billions of tons of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere, the rise in temperatures.

Now, as he leads a small company in suburban Detroit that is pursuing a better battery for hybrid cars, he sees the need for urgency to stop the growth of greenhouse gases.

"If these things get nonlinear," he says - in an engineer's way of describing a problem that worsens rapidly because of new realities created by the problem itself - "the time scale that will be imposed on us would be such that we will not be able to respond fast enough."

Patil, 56, is CEO of Compact Power Inc., a 17-person unit of Korean battery maker LG Chem. He's trying to develop a lithium ion battery that will offer good range, weight and cost for plug-in hybrid vehicles, whose power source could be both the electric grid and a small internal combustion engine or fuel cell.

Patil left Ford in October 2005 to take on the challenge.

Began hybrid program

In 1998, Ford CEO Alex Trotman tapped Patil to start a hybrid program. It wasn't a humanitarian response to global warming. Toyota Motor Corp. had just announced an impending hybrid, and "part of it was strictly competitiveness," Patil recalls.

Nonetheless, says Patil, global warming "is something we have been looking at at Ford for about 15 or 20 years. I think it was sort of a gradual change in perception as data started to become more and more convincing.

"There is still some uncertainty in the data (about global warming), but the implications are severe enough that we can't afford to wait for perfection."

Like others in the auto industry working on fuel economy, Patil has several motivations: concerns about the price and supply of oil, unstable Mideast politics, global warming.

Then there's the kicker that underlies everything auto companies do: Will customers buy it?

For Ford's hybrid team, "The real push was that, for the first time, there was a solution that the customers could relate to," Patil says.

Should regulations be ramped up to require higher fuel mileage from vehicles?

"The regulations have to be done in a way that doesn't distort the marketplace but allows the market forces to align with fuel reduction," Patil says. If they don't align, then technology improvements will go where the customer wants to go.

Cheap fuel, same rules

This explains the lack of fuel economy improvements in the past 20 years. Fuel remained cheap and regulations didn't tighten. Consumers chose vehicles that were faster and more capable, but not more economical.

The challenges of fuel economy and greenhouse-gas emissions are made all the more difficult by the growth of developing markets.

Patil is from India and returns every year to see his parents. In December he took his wife and two grown sons for the first time in some years.

"A remarkable thing I saw this time was my family," he says. "They said, 'Oh, all of the cars are new!' Most of the cars are less than four years old."

Because of the burgeoning vehicle population, "the CO2 would grow no matter what we are doing in terms of improving individual vehicles," he says.

But he remains optimistic that society can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and deal with global warming.

"There are means to address it," he says. "And the means is not to say to certain countries, 'Well, you can't have that.' We still have time to deal with it."

You may e-mail Peter Brown at pbrown@crain.com

You can reach Peter Brown at pbrown@crain.com.

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