Dream Jobs 2010: Brian Gallagher, Electric-Car Surfer

An unlikely automotive engineer oversees all the electricity at a revolutionary vehicle maker

Photo: Gregg Segal

Buggy: Brian Gallagher sits behind the wheel of the new, all-electric Aptera.

This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2010.

Even after working on the thing for years, Brian Gallagher can’t forget how astounding the sight of an Aptera in the wild can be. When one came barreling toward him and his wife recently, he says, he yelled just as loudly as she did. ”It was shocking.”

A two-seater on three wheels with a teardrop shape and a drag coefficient of 0.15 (better than any other production car), the Aptera sure sticks out—as does Gallagher, who developed the car’s electrical systems. At 30, he’s undoubtedly the youngest—and the only visibly tattooed—engineer to be entrusted with such a heady responsibility. Yet before joining the three-year-old start-up in Vista, Calif., Gallagher had never had any special interest in cars, electric or otherwise.

gallagher bioBorn into a military family, growing up all around the world, Gallagher was always drawn to things technical. He remembers spending hours taking apart Japanese toy robots and putting them back together to do new things. In 2003 he got his EE degree at the San Diego campus of the ITT Technical Institute and then stayed on in that city, taking a job designing automation systems for a biotech firm and indulging his taste for sun and surfing.

Gallagher soon developed a side project to build an intuitive touch-screen user interface to give truck drivers finer control of the air suspension of the tractors or trailers they were towing, for a more level ride. While working on it, he taught himself the mechanics of auto-suspension design and tested his evolving control system by using his 2002 Ford Mustang GT as a test ”mule.” It turned out his interests dovetailed with those of a colleague at the biotech firm: Steve Fambro, also an EE, who’d long wanted to design an ultraefficient car and was developing body designs for one. Fambro knew his car would need a suspension control that could minimize drag by adjusting the car’s angle of attack, just as a surfer does by angling his board to keep it poised on the curl of a wave. So by the summer of 2004 the two of them had fallen into a habit of working every night on their respective prototypes, then comparing notes the next morning.

Gallagher moved to Arizona to be near the prospective distributor of his truck suspension system, but the project fizzled, so in 2005 he returned to southern California to work as a contract engineer. Fambro, then designing the Aptera prototype, asked Gallagher to redo his air suspension for the car’s special, drag-avoiding needs—without pay until money came through. Two years later, after Fambro had secured a second round of development funding, he hired Gallagher as an R&D engineer for Aptera Motors, later dedicating him to high-voltage systems. A year and a half later, Fambro promoted him to his current position, electrical engineering project manager.

Since then, Gallagher has developed an appreciation for the rigor of automotive engineering. ”What gets designed not only has to work right,” he says, ”but it has to be ultrareliable for 10 years and it’s got to be cheap, not like in, say, aerospace.”

His day is a flurry of one-on-one conversations and meetings with teams for each major subsystem. A typical meeting will involve five full-time engineers, six or seven software consultants, and a few more engineers from parts vendors. To keep teams on their timelines, he stays abreast of every aspect of each design, ensures that all systems are properly integrated, and sometimes ”dives into problems to understand them” so he can help guide individual engineers.

These days, on the high-voltage side, the traction team is finalizing the 22-kilowatt-hour battery-pack design and also the layout of cabling. The power electronics team is refining the control software that modulates power from the 75-kW electric motor and recharges the pack when the regenerative brakes kick in; the team’s goal is to make the transitions imperceptible to the driver. Other teams handle the DC-DC voltage converter and the built-in battery charger.

On the low-voltage side, the engineers have integrated almost everything into the car’s distributed network. Their control logic must shuffle data among a variety of sensors, switches, electronic control units, and accessories: lights, wipers, instruments, door locks, the key fob, and the car’s infotainment system.

Gallagher is proudest, he says, of ”convincing Steve we could create a PC platform in the vehicle that could be customized with software apps.” The idea is to provide drivers with data to help them optimize their driving, making a game out of using as little energy as possible. That’s ”the killer app for Aptera,” he says.

The Aptera 2e, as the car will officially be known, will monitor its energy use and compare it to both the selected driving style—fast and furious, say, or measured and thrifty—and the distance to the destination. If the battery’s charge isn’t enough to get the car that far, the car will offer the driver options to increase the range. It might, for example, suggest that the driver stop driving like a maniac, offer to dial down power to the air-conditioning, or even lower the volume on the car’s sound system. Gallagher points out that drivers can set parameters as specific as the suspension heights of each wheel by using virtual sliding ”levers” on the touch screen.

The final production version of the 2010 Aptera 2e will be unveiled later this year, and mass production will follow several months later. The car is expected to accelerate to 60 miles per hour (about 100 kilometers per hour) in 10 seconds and have a 100-mile range between charges. Still, its two seats and startling shape may limit its sales to true electric-car devotees, wealthy gadget freaks, and futurists. More than 4000 have already put deposits down on the car, even though its price is vaguely quoted as ”between US $25 000 and $40 000.”

Gallagher himself still drives his black 2002 Mustang GT with a V8 engine, which despite its life as a mule has only 35 000 miles on it. But his commute is short; he lives with his wife and three sons just 10 miles away. Nowadays, instead of surfing, he runs.

What keeps him going? Sure, there’s the green aspect. ”This has the potential to be a very revolutionary car,” Gallagher says. But then he grins at how people have reacted to a design they couldn’t imagine until they saw it. Gallagher enjoys building stuff that makes people scream in surprise.

This article originally appeared in print as "Electric-Car Surfer."

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