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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

An Environmental Justice Pioneer

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Richard Moore of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, one of the founding leaders of the environmental justice movement. Moore reflects on the evolution of the environmental justice movement and looks ahead towards future challenges.


CURWOOD: Clean-running electric cars may be the wave of the future for American drivers. But so far, most electrics are still mired in the past. The standard design is a century old. It uses heavy batteries with a big electric motor coupled to a heavy transmission. And all that weight limits efficiency and driving range. With a 1998 mandate looming to sell thousands of electric cars, auto makers are trying to extend their range, focusing largely on better batteries. But a Maryland company is taking a different approach. They want to throw out the entire central motor and drive train and use computers to link small, lightweight motors right at the wheels. Alex Van Oss reports.

(Highway traffic)

VAN OSS: Route 5 runs through the steamy green flatlands of southern Maryland, where you can pull over and crack crabs all day or cruise past a traditional Amish family on the highway as they clop along in a horse-drawn buggy. Or you can look for the non-descript gray block building, nothing special at all on the outside, which is the home of Town Creek Industries, Inc. And it's here you'll find the prototype of US Patent 5,067,932, the electric wheel.

(Spinning, with a high-pitched hum)

TEATHER: These motors are 96% efficient. It will be able to do 100 miles in forward, 100 miles an hour, and 100 miles an hour in reverse because the electronics don't care.

VAN OSS: David Teather is President of Town Creek Industries, and he spends a lot of his time these days carting around and showing off the one and only electric wheel in existence, hoping to raise enough capital to build, some day, a prototype car that runs on electric wheels.

TEATHER: Environmentally speaking, the advantage of this is, it enables electric vehicles to achieve fossil fuel power using existing battery technology.

VAN OSS: That means the electric wheel could go as far and fast as a gas powered car goes today, but on a lot less fuel. The technology is nothing new. The invention uses a kind of motor that's found in ceiling fans, and it's got a gear system that's been used in tractors since the 1960s. What is new is how those gears spin and work together in a small, lightweight, and highly efficient propulsion system. In place of a central motor and drive train and their hundreds of moving parts, David Teather envisions a car with just a power supply, some wiring, and 4 of the electric wheels coordinated by a computer.

TEATHER: Basically, we've gotten the propulsion system down to a very inexpensive computer control game.

LOVINS: I think this invention is a neat example of the American tradition of garage tinkerers that once in a while come up with something really interesting and important.

VAN OSS: Amory Lovins directs the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit resource policy center in Colorado. He also advises the developers of the electric wheel, and there is the possibility that he may become their business partner. The electric car fits in well with Amory Lovins's projected concept of a future super-car that would be fuel-efficient and avoid air pollution. If the idea works, he says, it could solve a number of problems, particularly that of weight.

LOVINS: Normally, to run electric cars, which often have a lot of heavy batteries, you need great big motors to get decent acceleration. But the electric wheel enables you to use much smaller motors plus a clever, simple arrangement of gears to get a lot of oomph.

VAN OSS: Promoters say the electric wheel could make it easier for California and other states to phase in zero emission vehicles. In theory, the electric wheel could also be used in wheelchairs, lawn mowers, military tanks, bulldozers, and conveyor belts, and save fuel even in aviation. Amory Lovins.

(Airplane engines)

LOVINS: It will have a variety of niche markets. One, apparently, of interest that I must say had not occurred to me, is moving airplanes around on the ground. It's a lot more efficient to do that with a little motor in the wheel than to use, say, the jet engines burning lots of fuel. Because those are really designed to make you fly, not to make you crawl along on wheels.

VAN OSS: Town Creek Industries has been careful to take out a patent on the electric wheel, and has entered negotiations with the military, corporations, and universities, and NASA. They claim to have had some nibbles of interest from big auto companies, but so far, getting the electric wheel rolling at the corporate level has not been easy. Town Creek President David Teather:

TEATHER: We continually run up to the "not invented here" problem. You know, we're 3 guys in a little company down here in southern Maryland that are up there telling them that our device works better than their $50 million think tank can produce.

VAN OSS: Teather says that in theory the electric wheel should even work under water, since each wheel is a sealed, self-contained and replaceable unit. The real test, of course, is getting them to work on the road under all conditions. But even if an electric wheel breaks down, says David Teather, there's no need to pull over and call a tow truck.

(Electric wheel running)

TEATHER: In the case of a single motor concept, you're dead meat along the road. In the motor in the wheel concept, you lost one of your wheels, you lost 25% of your power. You still have 75%. You're still going home. Probably still even doing the speed limit.

VAN OSS: Well, say 2 wheels go.

TEATHER: Now you have half your speed achievable. You're going home at 45 miles an hour but you're still going home. Three of them go, all right we're doing 15 miles an hour on the berm of the road, but we're still going home.

VAN OSS: David Teather is President of Town Creek Industries, developers of the as yet unavailable electric wheel. For Living on Earth, this is Alex Van Oss in Washington.



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