Familiar with the saying, “It’s not rocket science”?
For one San Diego company that bailed out of its fledgling space business to successfully pursue the electric and hybrid-electric vehicle market, it is all about rocket science.
These days, ISE Research (ISER) is getting a charge out of designing and manufacturing specialized electrical and electronic components that enable heavy duty vehicles to operate with electric power.
The company’s motto, “Where Rocket Science Hits the Road,” is easily noticed on a poster in the hallway of its modest Kearny Mesa office.
But don’t let the small, quiet office fool you , this is big business. Or at least it has the potential to be, ISER chairman Michael Simon said.
More than 300,000 new heavy-duty trucks and tens of thousands of buses, tractors and other specialty vehicles are sold in the United States every year, according to ISER data.
Simon said ISER is poised to establish an early and dominant market position in the world of electric and hybrid-electric vehicles.
ISER’s hybrid-electric vehicles operate on electricity from batteries that can be re-charged while the vehicle is being driven. The vehicles have an engine that runs a generator that, in turn can recharge the batteries.
ISER has already established several strategic relationships with big-name companies, such as Kenworth Truck Co., Peterbilt Motors Co., FWD Corp., Hackney & Sons, Siemens and United Defense. ISER is also working with leading truck, tractor and bus manufacturers like PACCAR Corp., El Dorado National, Neoplan, New Flyer, Nova Bus and Orion to develop hybrid-electric vehicles.
Military, Airlines Interested
The U.S. military, the city of Los Angeles and a major airliner have even joined the hybrid-electric revolution, ordering vehicles from ISER.
“Five years ago when we talked with major truck and bus manufacturers, none of them even knew what a hybrid-electric vehicle was,” Simon said. “Now, in the bus industry, it’s basically accepted that hybrid-electric buses are the wave of the future.”
Hybrid-electric vehicles do show promise, but the technology must mature before it’s widely accepted and used, said Steve Cannistraci, senior heavy-duty equipment mechanic for the city of Los Angeles.
The city has paid ISER a little more than $3 million to design and manufacture four new hybrid-electric buses and to upgrade and convert four existing buses.
So far, the four buses that have been in operation in Downtown L.A. since last year are running pretty well, Cannistraci said.
“For some of our routes, hybrid-electric seems like a good platform,” he said. “But it’s Simon admits that ISER’s hybrid-electric vehicles need to be fine-tuned a little bit.
“They’re not as reliable as diesel trucks but diesel trucks have had 100 years to be perfected,” he said. “ISE vehicles have only been running for a year.”
Evaporating diesel from the front lines seems like a good idea to Herb Dobbs, team leader for alternative fuels and fuel cell technology for the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, Mich.
The command has been working with ISER on hybrid-electric vehicle development for two years.
“The hybrid-electric technology in general has a real future for ground vehicles,” Dobbs said.
He said the Army’s goal is to reduce its battlefield fuel consumption by 75 percent within the next 20 years.
“About 70 percent of the tonnage we move to the actual combat area is fuel. It imposes a great logistics burden.”
Dobbs said while the Army is excited about hybrid-electric technology, it will be a few years before the military organization will company has come.
It wasn’t long ago that ISER was struggling to boost its space business. The company, originally founded in 1992 as International Space Enterprises, was, at first, a part-time, after-hours job for its six co-founders.
The company’s co-founders, including Simon, all were involved in the aerospace/science business at the time.
“We were all frustrated because NASA wasn’t doing more to explore space,” said Simon, a former General Dynamics engineer.
So, Simon and his colleagues came up with this concept of sending rovers to the moon and broadcasting the images over the Internet. The company received several NASA grants and contracts for its space efforts.
Between 1994 and 1995, ISER did a study for NASA to design a telescope to be launched to the moon that would be operated from earth via the Internet. The company also developed moon rovers for NASA.
“We could tell by the end of ’95 it had limited growth potential,” Simon said about the company’s niche space business. “We were maybe 20 to 30 years ahead of our time.”