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At General Motors, where he rose to become chairman, Robert Stempel '55 developed a keen interest in electric vehicles. Today, the man who invented the catalytic converter is chairman of another company that is helping make possible the environmentally friendly, fuel-efficient vehicles that may well transform the automotive industry.

By Laurance S. Morrison, Photography by Patrick O'Connor

Like a shimmering blue mirage, the GM Sunraycer glided silently across the Australian desert in 1987, fueled only by photons from the sun. Powered by 8,800 solar cells, the experimental car covered nearly 2,000 miles in five days to win the first World Solar Challenge.

GM's participation in the race was a turning point for advocates for solar power and electric vehicles. It was also a turning point in the life and career of Robert C. Stempel '55, who, three years later, would rise as high as a self-described "car guy" can go. Having worked his way up through the ranks at GM, he would become chairman and chief executive officer of the world's largest manufacturing company.

His experience with Sunraycer led Stempel to encourage the development by General Motors of a production-model battery-powered electric vehicle, the EV-1. It also introduced him to one of the most pressing challenges facing designers of electric vehicles--the need for lightweight, long-lasting energy storage systems.

"The only battery we had to start with," he says, "was the conventional lead-acid battery. We used 26 to produce the voltage and energy storage capacity we needed to get a range of 80 miles."

Stempel would have to pursue his growing interest in electric propulsion outside of General Motors. Soon after his election as chairman, problems flared in the Middle East over oil. Auto sales slowed. GM, having just built modern facilities, needed to close its older plants to reduce excess capacity and expenses and align capacity with market demands. The thoughtfully organized phase-out plan at 18 plants resulted in no strikes, but the GM board was hoping for a faster transition, Stempel says. Mindful of the corporation's interests, he decided, mutually with the board, to step down in 1992.

"Shortly after leaving GM," he says, "I was contacted about working on several interesting car and truck products, and was asked to consider several university assignments, as dean of engineering or head of a business school. But I wanted to continue working on alternate power trains for personal transportation. I really wanted to see electric drive have a role in future vehicle transportation."

Knowing of Stempel's search for a better battery, Walter McCarthy, CEO of Detroit Edison and a director of Energy Conversion Devices (ECD), introduced Stempel to Stanford Ovshinsky, who, with his wife, Iris Ovshinski, Ph.D., had founded the small company in Troy, Mich., in 1960. ECD had developed a rugged nickel metal hydride battery that looked like it might be exactly what Stempel had been hunting for. It offered high energy, high power, long life and environmental friendliness.

A growing company, ECD holds more than 350 U.S. patents and more than 800 corresponding foreign patents. Its three core product areas--information technology, energy generation and utilization, and energy storage and infrastructure--are based on its proprietary, atomically engineered amorphous and disordered materials. Its products include optical memory, electronic memory and switches, protective coatings, photovoltaic systems, a solid hydrogen storage system for automotive applications, and the Ovonic Regenerative Fuel Cell, which can be used in vehicle and stationary applications.

Stempel joined ECD in 1994 and is currently chairman and executive director. "At ECD, we focus on consumer freedom and mobility because many of our products provide energy for personal transportation and home uses," he says. "People need and want environmentally sensitive energy."

"At WPI I discovered the fundamentals of plans and preparation. I learned to work in a team. I found out how to see across disciplines and understand the roles of others in a project. At the same time, I learned the concepts of mechanical engineering. Over the years, these lessons have been the foundation of my work."

Stempel oversaw the installation of Texaco Ovonic nickel metal hydride batteries in the EV-1, which can travel 160 to 180 miles on a single charge. They're also in Chevrolet's electric pickup trucks, and are being offered for use in hybrids (which use a small gasoline or diesel engine in conjunction with an electric motor). Honda and Toyota hybrids will soon be joined by vehicles from Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. GM's Precept, a full-size hybrid, achieves more than 80 miles per gallon using the Ovonic battery.

Stempel says his role at ECD is a natural extension of the work he did at GM. "Having spent a great deal of my time on emissions and pollution reduction or elimination, a second career with ECD is right in line with my own views on the environment and clean air and water. Many of my volunteer activities include clean air and water issues here in the Great Lakes Basin."

His career began right after World War II, when technology, materials and talent that had been channeled to national defense suddenly came face to face with pent-up consumer demand. Observing this practical landscape of free enterprise was a youngster who just loved cars. Stempel studied and, at 6'4", played football at his high school in Bloomfield, N.J., a community of about 50,000. He also worked at an auto repair garage.

When the WPI basketball team visited nearby Stevens Institute, a WPI alumnus invited Stempel to attend the game. While the teams grappled on the court, he heard about life at WPI. He had been considering several technically oriented colleges. In this, his parents, Eleanor, a secretary, and Carl, a banker who spearheaded the development of the leasing of airplanes in the post-war years, encouraged him. They taught their children the dignity of work and the importance of doing a job well.

Four and a half decades after he graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering (he also holds an MBA from Michigan State University), Stempel remembers exactly why he chose WPI. "I was swayed by the balance of the theoretical and the hands on," he says. "The Washburn Shops, the Metallurgy Labs, the electrical shops, the whole focus on engineering. For me, it was all there at WPI."

To keep himself in pocket money, he fixed the cars of fellow students. "I carried a box of tools in the trunk and the word got around," he says. As a senior, he received the Worcester Chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Award for his paper, "Practical Fuel Injection for Automobiles."

"At WPI I discovered the fundamentals of plans and preparation," he says. "I learned to work in a team. I found out how to see across disciplines and understand the roles of others in a project. Over the years, these lessons have been the foundation of my work."

After graduation, he worked at General Electric's Wire and Cable Division and did two years' service in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But, he recalls, "Car makers were styling up the 1950s body shape, which was reminiscent of the glory times, and I saw that. I was deeply interested in teamwork-based engineering. It cemented things for me. I belonged in the automobile industry. I wanted to go to Detroit."

His road to Detroit began in 1958 when he joined General Motors as a design engineer in the Oldsmobile Division, in Lansing, Mich. Over the next 13 years, he held five jobs there, including assistant chief engineer. Chief engineer John Beltz decided to give Stempel room to do something new. "He was an inspiration," he says.

With Beltz's backing, Stempel proved instrumental in developing the front-wheel drive Toronado. His energy, insight and leadership qualities were getting noticed. GM president Edward Cole delivered Stempel's next turning point when he involved him in the creative teamwork that produced the catalytic converter. "I wondered if this was such a good idea for me," Stempel says, "but he said 'trust me,' and I did. It proved beneficial to my career; I was promoted to Chevrolet's chief engineer."

He would also play a pivotal role in developing the 1977 Caprice and the 1984 Pontiac Fiero. As he took on more responsibility, his decisions grew weightier. As president and chief operating officer and, then, chairman and chief executive officer, he was operating at the center of global commerce.

"The lightning speed of communications is probably the key factor to contend with in decision making," he says. "But you can't allow this to hurry your conclusions. I rely on experience and try to assess the impact of my decisions while making course corrections according to new information. I keep a decision checklist. And I try to see the end game."

His talent for leadership and his technical prowess have won him much recognition. In October, his name joined the ranks of Admiral Hyman Rickover, James Van Allen, David Packard, William Lear and Edwin Land when he received the Golden Omega Award. Given to "an outstanding person of science, engineering, education or industry who has made important contributions to technical progress, often related to the electrical, electronics field," the award is jointly sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association and the Electrical Manufacturing & Coil Winding Association. As a mechanical engineer, Stempel is an unusual recipient. "I think it underscores the multidisciplinary approach to solving many of today's technological problems," he says.

Stempel is also a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering, a Life Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and a Fellow of the Engineering Society of Detroit. A trustee emeritus of WPI, he received the university's Robert H. Goddard Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement in 1980.

In November, he received the ASME's Soichiro Honda Medal, which recognizes significant engineering contributions in the field of personal transportation. At ECD, in a new leadership role, he continues a career that has placed him squarely at the front edge of personal automobile transportation for five decades.

-- Morrison heads a full-service communications firm based in Sturbridge, Mass.

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