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.
Born 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.