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They Like Tilting at Windmills

Ben and Harold Rosen helped revolutionize the communications industry by doing what others thought couldn't be done. Now, they want to invent a replacement for the internal combustion engine.


DETROIT — When they've already changed the world, what are two brothers supposed to do as retirement looms? For Ben and Harold Rosen, the answer is to try to do it again.

The Louisiana-bred, Caltech-educated Rosens have embarked on their biggest challenge ever--to produce a clean, efficient and powerful automotive power source that will do nothing less than replace the internal combustion engine.

If that sounds familiar, it is. There have been countless schemes to rid the world of the noxious power plant. Yet the sturdy engine, repeatedly refined since it was developed by Gottlieb Daimler in 1896, has survived all such assaults.

But the Rosens, working out of a modest research lab in Woodland Hills, Calif., with a small staff and budget, are no ordinary tinkerers. And their approach--a hybrid electric system that combines a gas-burning turbogenerator, essentially a miniature jet engine, with an exotic flywheel that stores energy like a battery--is getting serious, albeit skeptical, attention.

Ben, 63, is a bona fide Silicon Valley legend. A onetime engineer turned Wall Street analyst turned high-tech venture capitalist, he helped finance more than 80 start-up companies, including such powerhouses as Compaq Computer and Lotus Development. Worth more than $100 million, he remains chairman of Compaq, which three years ago surpassed IBM as the world's largest maker of personal computers.

Harold, 70, is a gifted inventor and celebrated former Hughes engineer. He pioneered the development of geostationary satellites that have made today's instant global telephone and television communications possible. He holds more than 50 patents.

Such credentials give the Rosens instant credibility, nor does it hurt to have Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen among their investors. Some think they have the technological and entrepreneurial heft to accomplish in a few more years what Detroit says is unlikely, if not impossible, in the foreseeable future.

"I would put a bigger bet on Rosen & Co. succeeding than I would on the car companies and the national labs," said David McLellan, former chief engineer of Corvette and now a consultant. "They are smart and agile."

With luck, the Rosens say they can begin mass-producing the power source for a lean, green and mean machine within six years. Unlike electric vehicles now hitting the road, their approach promises no compromise on creature comforts or performance: double the driving range of today's gasoline-powered cars, virtually pollution-free, and with sports car-like acceleration.

"We are trying to change the fundamental technology of the automobile," said Ben, who admits that the ambitious endeavor is far from a sure thing.

The Rosens' emergence on the automotive scene highlights some of the undercurrents roiling the auto industry as the nation moves from the Industrial Age into the Information Age. Autos increasingly are controlled by electronics. Engines tune themselves and electronic gadgetry abounds. Design and manufacturing are dictated by microchips and software.

Sharp Contrast to Ways of Detroit

As cutting-edge players in computers and communications, the Rosens bring a high-tech, entrepreneurial approach to the auto that contrasts--and collides--with the risk-averse, necessarily cautious ways of Detroit.

"In the computer industry, it's normal not only to accept change but to seek change and use it as a competitive advantage," said Ben. "In the auto industry, there is a resistance to change. They gradually change the product rather than radically change the product. That's hard to come to grips with."

The problem of powering the automobile has befuddled some of the world's best minds and most powerful corporations for decades, despite huge investments. Indeed, such promising experimental engines as the Stirling, Orbital and two-stroke never lived up to their billing. Even Mazda's proven Wankel rotary engine appears to be fading from use.

Given history, high costs and intense competition, Detroit insiders consider the Rosen undertaking a long shot. "The odds are probably 1 in a hundred," said David Cole, executive director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

Ben, interviewed recently in Atlanta where he outlined his plans to auto dealers at an industry symposium, conceded: "Skepticism is appropriate."

Big Three Efforts Prove Fruitless

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler each has done research into flywheel technology but dropped the efforts as unpromising at this time because of safety and cost concerns. Private firms, such as United Technologies, as well as several national laboratories continue to study flywheel feasibility.

Already the Rosens have found the research and development much more difficult than expected. Two attempted road tests of the new hybrid system ended in embarrassment last year when the vehicle wouldn't start.

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