A prophet to honor

Last week I was lucky enough to moderate a discussion with Stan Ovshinsky, who has probably done more to point us toward the future than anyone else now living in this state.

The event was Harry Cook's typically brilliant Thursday night lecture series, which he holds monthly at the Birmingham Unitarian Church on Woodward. To my dismay, the hall was less than filled.

They should have been lining up to get in. Incredibly, I run into people all the time who have never heard of Ovshinsky, a scientist without peer who has personally been granted 400 patents. I am sure of very little these days, but I'd bet my fillings that a century from now, when history has forgotten Jennifer Granholm and Rick Wagoner, people will remember and honor Stanford R. Ovshinsky.

This is the genius who is the principal inventor of the nickel-metal-hydride battery once widely used in cell phones. He also was a pioneer in developing CDs and DVDs, solar panels, electric power steering, hydrogen fuel cells ... the list goes on and on. He has done more than anyone to make the electric car a reality.

Time magazine called him "A Hero for the Planet." Nova did a documentary on him, called "Japan's American Genius." If you didn't know all that, well, it may have something to do with the old story about prophets never being honored on their home turf, and also be a reflection of the media culture in this town. Compare how much attention Ovshinsky gets to that paid to the brawling clowns of Detroit City Council, or any possible local contestant on any national "reality show."

Of course, he mostly doesn't want publicity — he is too busy inventing the future — but that he and his work aren't better known is both silly and a disgrace. The reality is that we are running out of fuel, and time, and SRO is trying to help us save ourselves. He is still going strong, churning out ideas and refining inventions — and why not? He won't be 87 until November.

He has a new company, Ovshinsky Innovation; married colleague and physicist Rosa Young after his wife Iris' untimely death three years ago, and is still fighting, as he has been since 1960, to drag us into the alternative energy future before the oil gives out.

What I most wanted to ask him is whether he thought there was any hope for the domestic auto industry. Ovshinsky knows and loves cars; he first came to Detroit as head of research for the now-defunct Hupp Motorcar Co. more than a half-century ago. His eyes twinkled sadly. Ah, Detroit. "They are 14 years behind Japan," he said, shaking his head. He tried to tell the Big Three. They didn't want to hear.

Back in the 1990s, he was running Energy Conversion Devices with Robert Stempel, the former head of GM. The pair went to Japan, checking out reports that hybrid cars were practical and on their way. They saw that they were.

"We went to see General Motors, and they laughed at us. A big finance guy who is still there laughed. They said they weren't practical, wouldn't work, and nobody will buy them."

General Motors has set the standard for arrogant idiocy for decades, of course. Right after that, they proceeded to destroy the electric car they had hired him to help make, the EV-1. (If you aren't familiar with this story, go rent the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? in which Stan and Iris Ovshinsky figure prominently.)

Now, belatedly, GM is struggling to produce an all-electric car, the Chevy Volt, due out next year. Some press accounts have acted as if it will be the savior of the company. What did Stan Ovshinsky think of the Volt? He struggled, trying, it seemed, to be diplomatic and charitable. "It's a start. It's not a bad thing. Not a bad car. They will sell a few thousand," he said.

Trouble is, he explained, the engineers still haven't decided for sure on what type of battery they'll put in it. Most people think a lithium ion battery is most likely ... but every so often those batteries tend to spontaneously explode or catch on fire. All sorts of engineers are working feverishly on this problem, but it hasn't been completely solved yet. Lithium batteries don't explode very often, maybe a few times per million.

But even one exploding battery might be enough to doom the Chevy Volt with the public. Then there is the price tag. Most expect the Volt to retail starting at more than $40,000, which would put it out of reach of most people. Will the Chevy Volt save GM, a corporation currently losing something like $5 million an hour? It is hard to imagine how.

Four years ago, Stan and Iris drove me around town in a hybrid car that had been converted to run on a hydrogen fuel cell, the inexhaustible fuel that powers the sun. He thought that was the best intermediate step to the renewable energy future. But he lacked investors. What is baffling is why somebody long ago didn't just establish an energy "think-and-do tank" and given Ovshinsky a few million dollars a year to tinker and experiment, so that he didn't have to waste much of his time chasing money.

Big oil wouldn't have liked that, I know. But imagine how much better off we might all be today.

By the way, is Stan Ovshinsky in favor of the government continuing to bail out the Big Three? His answer surprised me at first. "You have to do it. It may be futile, but it has to be done."

He paused, and explained. He didn't care about the management, which has run the company into the ground. "But I care about the workers, who have given their lives to these companies. It isn't their fault. They deserve to be taken care of."

I remembered that he always has been fiercely committed to social values, including civil liberties and labor unions. How rare is that — a man who cares about our present and past and who is inventing our future? We owe it to ourselves to do more to recognize and pay attention to him before he is gone.

Smoking ban update: Most Michigan residents want a total smoking ban in bars and restaurants. Every poll shows that. Last year, both houses of the Legislature showed strong support for it. Nearby states, and Ontario, have banned smoking in eating and other public places. But not Michigan. So, what gives?

Here's the scoop. Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, a Republican mouthpiece for narrow business interests, didn't, and doesn't, want any ban whatever. But he faced a GOP caucus revolt led by state Sen. Tom George (R-Kalamazoo), a physician who knows how harmful secondhand smoke can be.

To avoid losing control, Bishop then said he would allow a vote on only a total ban that would permit no exemptions. That's because he knew Democrats, especially state Rep. Bert Johnson of Detroit, would insist on exempting Detroit's casinos. Motown casino business is up 30 percent since Canada, a civilized country, banned smoking. So nothing happened last year. Or so far this year.

However, my spies tell me that Bishop's boys may be willing to accept a compromise where the casinos could buy a "license to kill." Why? If they don't, outraged voters may well collect signatures and stick a total ban on the ballot, where it would surely pass.

Keep your eye on this one.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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