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Aerospace Swords Into Plowshares : Defense Contractors Convert to Consumer Goods and Brush Up on Their Rusty Marketing Skills

August 05, 1993|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though prime defense contractors are generally less inclined to attempt conversion projects, several with plants in the South Bay--Hughes Aircraft Co., for instance--are taking the plunge.

Hughes, more commercially minded since being bought by General Motors in 1985, is using defense technology to develop a satellite television service called DirecTv and an auto radar system now being tested that helps police track down suspects.

Two years ago, Hughes engineers set up shop in a former military electronics plant in Torrance to launch one of the company's most ambitious conversion efforts: to build power inverters for electric vehicles, such as the Impact, the electric car being designed by GM.

The inverter transforms the battery's energy into electricity more efficiently than other such units on the market--as much power, company officials say, as is typically consumed by a one-block residential neighborhood. The system, slightly larger than a briefcase, is derived from electronics that Hughes developed to power radar aboard military jets.

In June, Hughes signed a deal to supply a less expensive version of the technology to Electricar, a Los Angeles company that is converting cars and trucks to electric power.

The company also has developed charging stations, to be installed at public garages, restaurant parking lots, shopping malls and service stations. The charging stations would be equipped with a plug the size of a table tennis paddle that would be inserted into the front of an electric car to recharge it.

Hughes has placed its power inverters in an electric bus, developed with Specialty Vehicle Manufacturing in Downey, and an electric pickup truck, also made by Electricar. At Hughes' Lomita Boulevard plant, visiting reporters are allowed to take the pickup for a spin.

"Everyone thinks golf cart, " said Fred Silver, marketing manager for commercial programs at Hughes' Power Control Systems Division in Torrance. "But when people see how it runs, it's kind of a moment of disbelief and awe that such a small motor can do that."

Other prime contractors getting into the conversion act include Northrop and TRW.

In El Segundo, Northrop Corp.'s Aircraft Division is leading a group of companies in the design of an advanced-technology bus built with lightweight composite material similar to that used in the Stealth bomber.

In Redondo Beach, TRW's space and electronics group, using employees from its defense and commercial units, is developing a radar system to eliminate blind spots around vehicles and help drivers keep track of oncoming traffic.

The company has already had success in auto products: Last year, it produced about 3 million sensor and inflater units for auto air bags, a product spun off from military technology in 1989. The air bag systems are produced and sold by a newly created unit of TRW.

The radar product, which has its roots in high-frequency military electronics, could lead to the creation of hundreds of jobs. But the company is cautious about making predictions.

"We don't want to develop a new product and new market at the same time," said Peter Staudhammer, vice president of science and technology at TRW. "That's a problem that many have with this."

Indeed, convincing consumers is one of the toughest challenges facing defense contractors as they try to crack the civilian marketplace.

The electric vehicles Hughes is helping to build, for instance, are being designed to match gas-powered vehicles as much as possible in acceleration and braking. But the electric cars and trucks are strangely quiet and can travel only 70 to 100 miles on a single battery charge.

"You can't pile in and take off to Vegas," said Kearney Bothwell, a spokesman for GM Hughes Electronics in Los Angeles. "It's a commuter car, a second vehicle."

To turn the public on to electric transportation, Hughes and other manufacturers are trying to persuade city governments to operate electric buses and eventually place other electric vehicles in their fleets. The hope is that by seeing electric-powered municipal cars and riding in electric city buses, the public will drop any misgivings about electric vehicles.

Some cities have begun incorporating electricity into their transportation plans. Torrance has agreed to buy at least one of the Hughes/Specialty Vehicle Manufacturing buses and plans to begin operating it this fall. Beverly Hills, meanwhile, plans to install electric-car charging stations in a city parking structure, although no manufacturer has been chosen.

To head off safety fears about its charging stations, Hughes has created a video presentation for potential customers in which its charging paddles are dipped into goldfish tanks without causing an electric shock.

"It's education first, demonstration second," Silver said. "We're very good at that. We don't need the mentality of 'How many cars did you sell today?' "

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