Alexander Severinsky thought he had escaped long waits for basic goods when his family fled the Soviet Union in 1978. But barely a year later he found himself in his Oldsmobile Cutlass, in the Texas heat, at the end of a line of cars waiting to gas up.
"I just came from Russia a year ago, where I stand in lines for food, and now what changed? I'm back in line, only for fuel," he said, laughing, in his accented English.
Better fuel efficiency, he reasoned, could boost gas supplies and end the lines. "So I decided to look into what is the problem with engines."
His 15-year quest led him to invent and patent a hybrid gasoline-electric automobile engine. A 1999 prototype, built with support from the University of Maryland and Baltimore's Abell Foundation, doubled the gas mileage on a Cadillac DeVille.
When Toyota introduced its redesigned Prius a few years later - without securing the right to use his patents - Severinsky sued. And like Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper who battled Detroit's Big Three for stealing his idea, Severinsky won. A federal jury awarded his company $4.3 million, plus $25 for every hybrid car that Toyota builds until his patent expires.
The 2005 verdict against Toyota was a vindication for Severinsky, but maybe not as pleasing as peering under the hood of his Toyota-built Lexus hybrid SUV.
"I'm very happy," said Severinsky, who will be inducted Thursday into the Innovation Hall of Fame at the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering. "Close to a million cars with my technology on the streets. It is great honor for the inventor. Toyota already said all future cars will be hybrid, and this is absolutely correct."
He regrets that U.S. automakers, whom he tried to interest in his technology in the 1990s, have been so slow to catch up. "I expected it would be much faster," Severinsky said. "Coming from Russia, my impression of America is that it is a country of innovators. ... [The] automotive industry in the United States became very noncompetitive."
Severinsky's quintessentially American story began 64 years ago in the coal mining Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. His family moved there after World War II because there "was nothing to eat in Kharkov," he said.
Severinsky earned a doctorate in electrical engineering. He found work in the Soviet equivalent of the National Bureau of Standards.
"Compared to other people, it was at the very top materially," he said. "We lived fine. But you have ambitions."
By the late 1970s, food was growing scarce. "I had to go increasingly more frequently to Moscow and Kiev just to buy food," he recalled.
He and his wife applied for exit visas to emigrate to Israel, though they intended to get to the United States. It was not a casual decision. A great-grandfather had left czarist Russia for New York, only to return, appalled by conditions in the city's sweatshops.
"Life in Russia was easier," Severinsky said.
However, other family members had prospered. So, in the Lenin State Library in Moscow, he researched where he could settle in the United States, how much he could earn and what it would cost. He even filled out an IRS 1040 form to estimate his taxes.
"I'm very meticulous in what I do," he explained.
In 1978, Severinsky, 34, his wife (a physician), son and mother-in-law flew to Vienna, Austria, and then to Dallas, where a Jewish group sponsored their resettlement.
He landed an engineering job in the oil industry. His interest in a more efficient automobile began a year later in that suburban Dallas gas line. Experimenting on the freeway in his 1976 Cutlass, Severinsky concluded that its engine was most inefficient at low speeds. It was sized for acceleration and high speeds. He searched in vain for a combination of battery elements that would give an all-electric car the speed and range that consumers expect. Golf carts, perhaps, but not cars.
"It was not physically possible," he said.
He thought a powerful electric motor could provide the brief power surges needed for acceleration and serve for low power and slow speeds. A small gasoline engine could handle highway cruising and battery recharging. It was a promising idea, but one that had been kicked around since at least 1902. Severinsky knew he needed to learn more about power electronics, the technology that converts battery voltage into the power to drive electric motors.
So he changed jobs. He picked up skills in the computer controls that he would need to manage power from a hybrid's gas engine and electric motor, and then learned power electronics. Moving to Maryland in 1986, he became an expert in the "uninterruptible power supply" systems that keep big computers running during power failures. With help from the University of Maryland's Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech) incubator, he started his own company.
But he kept thinking about hybrid engines. Finally, his "flash of genius" came in the middle of the night: high voltage. A successful hybrid car, he realized, should mate its small, fuel-efficient gasoline engine with a small, high-voltage alternating current motor. The higher the voltage, the smaller the size and weight of the motor, and the higher its energy efficiency.
In 1991, he founded his hybrid engine company, Paice LLC. He won his first patents in 1994. They called for an electric motor of 500 to 1,500 volts - more than anything then in development.
Severinsky turned again to UM's business incubator. It let him rent campus space for offices and computer modeling. Faculty members helped him expand his ideas. The university, in return, got a 1 percent equity stake in the company for each year that Paice was in the incubator - about 4 percent in all. Without Mtech, "this would still be in fantasy stage," Severinsky said.
The incubator arranged meetings with potential investors, suppliers and federal agencies that might provide development funding. The companies included Martin Marietta, General Electric, Westinghouse, Chrysler and General Motors. Japanese carmakers were informed of the new technology, he said, but "we wanted to create this technology in the U.S."
The Abell Foundation became a key investor. Hybrid engines promised environmental benefits, noted Abell President Robert C. Embry Jr. And if Paice or its licensees began to manufacture something, Abell hoped that it would be in Baltimore.
In 1999, Paice built a prototype - a four-cylinder, 65 horsepower Suzuki engine married to a high-voltage electric motor. In dynamometer tests modeled on a Cadillac DeVille, it boosted gas mileage from 16 mpg with a V8 to 34 mpg with the hybrid.
But executives worried that a high-voltage car would be dangerous. Existing electric cars and hybrids, including Toyota's first Prius, a boxy compact introduced in 1997, ran on fewer than 300 volts - too little to make the cars commercially viable, Severinsky insists.
That soon changed. In 2003, Toyota introduced its wedge-shaped, 500-volt, midsize Prius. Paice sued in 2004, contending that the new Prius infringed on three patents and demanding $200 per car. Toyota denied any infringement. The advantages of high voltage were "obvious and well known," according to John Flock, one of Toyota's attorneys, but were not feasible until Toyota and GE developed critical electronic components.
But in December 2005, a district court jury in Texas found that the differences between the Prius design and Paice's were "insubstantial." The jury ordered Toyota to pay $4.3 million in damages based on sales of its hybrid Prius, Highlander and Lexus cars through 2005. They added a $25 royalty for each car built after that until the Paice patent expires in 2012. Toyota has said that it expects to sell 275,000 hybrids this year - potentially worth more than $6 million to Paice.
The verdict was upheld on appeals. Paice has since sued Toyota again for damages stemming from three new hybrid Camry and Lexus models, and for infringement on two new patents.
Toyota paid the $4.3 million. After other investors and lawyers were paid, the Abell Foundation got "a few million dollars," Embry said.
Severinsky has moved on. He founded Fuelcor, which licenses a technology to make synthetic automotive fuel from carbon dioxide and water emitted by coal-burning power plants. He divides his time between Washington and Miami.
Alexander Severinsky will be inducted into the Innovation Hall of Fame at 4:30 p.m. Thursday in the University of Maryland's Kim Engineering Building in College Park.