Purcell Finds Life After GM

The ex-GM staffer now is a director at Protean Electric, which shows off a concept F-150 EV at MBS featuring individual motors at each wheel.

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Bob Purcell was riding high. He’d moved up quickly at the former General Motors Corp., and by late 2008 was vice president-global planning, sales and strategic alliances at GM Powertrain.

The auto maker’s outlook at the time was extremely precarious, but Purcell says in an interview during the CAR Management Briefing Seminars that’s not why, then age 56, he chose to take voluntary retirement that October.

“I wanted to do something I could stay with for the next 15 to 20 years,” he tells Ward’s. “And I wanted to do some venture-capital projects.”

Purcell got into electric vehicles when he led GM’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Group (ATVG) from 1994 to 2002.

Among other assignments, the group developed the EV-1, which he describes as “the world’s first modern electric vehicle.” The EV-1 moved into production in 1996.

Although the EV-1 since has taken its knocks, Purcell maintains technologies pioneered by ATVG now are used widely in electric, hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles.

So maybe it’s not too surprising Purcell is spending his “retirement” involved in a wide variety of EV-related or energy assignments, including serving on two boards.

His first foray involved advising a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Corp., which had made a 10% investment in BYD Auto Co. Ltd. of China. BYD later developed an EV.

The original investment totaled $230 million starting in September 2008, he says, but “today that’s worth $2 billion.”

Next, Purcell got involved with a Westland, MI-based company that is developing wind-turbine technology. “Ours will have the lowest cost in the wind-energy industry,” he says, noting he soon will join the company’s board.

He also is a director of Protean Electric Ltd., based in Troy, MI, which has developed a system that uses electric motors at each wheel powered by a lithium-ion battery pack. “It’s the closest you can get to having a bolt-on EV.”

As featured in a concept Ford F-150 displayed at MBS, the Protean system weighs about 1,400 lbs. (635 kg), or slightly more than the V-8 engine and transmission it replaces. “It’s simple, very flexible and highly efficient,” says Purcell. “And it’s easy to manufacture.”

Protean is supported financially by Silicon Valley venture-capitalist West Oak Partners LLC.

Additionally, Purcell is a director of Boston-Power Inc., based in Westborough, MA, which is pursuing ultra-long-lasting Li-ion battery technology.

The company already produces Li-ion batteries in Taiwan and counts Hewlett-Packard Co. and Saab Automobile AB among its customers.

If that weren’t enough, Purcell is a partner in Dunston Venture Partners, which aims to make foundries more environmentally acceptable, and also carries a business card that simply reads “Purcell & Associates LLC.”

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