Stempel's Revolution

Hugging a sharp curve in a speeding red sports car, Robert Stempel is all business. The ride is smooth, the acceleration swift. But the former chairman of General Motors has his mind on something else--the unique battery that's making this electric car jump like a gas guzzler. Sitting stiffly behind the wheel, Stempel rattles off stats proving that vehicles powered with this cell will soon be more than glorified golf carts. It will be, he says, a revolution.

Revolution of any sort is not what folks associate with Bob Stempel. When he was forced out of GM in 1992, he was pilloried as the company's complacent old guard, a dinosaur from the V-8 era. But once a car guy, always a car guy. Back at GM, he'd vociferously objected to clean-air regulations that mandate electric cars. Now, as an outsider, he's more than happy to take advantage of those regulations. Last year Stempel linked up with Ovonic Battery Co., a suburban Detroit start-up whose products may make it feasible to commute in a car that you plug in each night. And just what does Stempel know about car batteries? Among other things, how to get car-makers to try them. Says Ovonic's founder, Stanford Ovshinsky, "No one is as popular in this town as Bob."

Of course, Stempel's record doesn't exactly make him promising material for a company whose few employees wouldn't be enough to staff the GM mail room. An engineer by training, he joined GM straight out of school in 1958 and never left. Unswervingly loyal, he spent three years as the ever-supportive No. 2 to controversial chairman Roger Smith. When he finally reached the top in 1990, Iraq was preparing to invade Kuwait. The war, a recession and GM's aging product line combined to devastating effect. But Stempel balked at radical cures. Even with the stock price plummeting and a gut-wrenching $4.5 billion loss in 1991, he was reluctant to shut factories and lay off workers. "I won't apologize for considering all my options before putting people out on the street," he says defensively. His hangdog face is immobile, but his voice is bitter. Two years after his appointment, GM's board demoted him from chairman to president. Six months later, he quit.

At GM, Stempel had championed experiments with alternative fuels. Once he was bounced from office, his thoughts kept coming back to the Impact, GM's prototype electric car. Although it handles as well as most cars on the road and looks as good, it shares the great drawback of other electric vehicles: a lead-acid battery that has to be recharged every 100 miles. If the longevity problem could be solved, electric cars had a future. Stempel knew from personal experience, however, that Detroit's Big Three were in no hurry to leave the gasoline engine behind. "Without me this project would die, so I took it on," he says with quixotic pride.

Stempel's quest led to Ovonic. One of many projects under the umbrella of Energy Conversion Devices, Inc., the brainchild of inventor Ovshinsky, the company was a money-loser until it turned around last year. The payoff came from exclusive patent rights to a battery made from a new nickel metal-hydride compound. With twice the storage capacity of earlier models, the cell has doubled the time new portable computers can go without plugging in. Ovshinsky & Co. are showing that the same battery, built large, can give electric cars vastly increased range. At the annual electric-car rally, a vehicle running on Ovonic's juice went 238 miles without a recharge--nearly the distance a car travels on a tank of gas.

The technical details alone won't ensure Ovonic's future in auto batteries. The key is government regulation. Because of Los Angeles's smog problem, California has required that 2 percent of all new ears have zero emissions by 1998. Several Northeastern states, including New York and Massachusetts, have followed suit. Stempel vigorously opposed such mandates as head of GM, and he is not about to apologize now. "Government harms new technologies when it rigs the market," he insists. But for the moment, at least, government has rigged things to favor battery power over rival technologies, like gas-electric hybrids, which can't quite reach zero emissions.

At General Motors, Stempel was king; at Ovonic, he doesn't even have an office. His official duties range from securing capital to overseeing product quality. His major task, though, is to give his minor-league employer instant access to the Motor City's titans. Those years of hobnobbing at the Bloom-field Hills Country Club have already paid off in the form of a joint venture between Ovonic and GM to mass-produce car batteries, which will be sold to anyone interested in making electric cars. But not all of Detroit's power brokers still treat him as an equal. Asked whether he's rung up Ford Motor CEO Alex Trotman, Stempel sets his jaw and his eyes narrow to pencil points: "Trotman is busy." With Ovonic-powered cars likely to hit the market by 1997, Stempel can wait. If consumers like them, his former counterparts will find time for him.