WASHINGTON – Former Intel Corp. Chairman Andy Grove has a knack for sensing when circumstances should force changes at a company or an industry — and how to respond.
He even has coined a term for it: the "strategic inflection point."
Now the retired chairman of the world's largest computer chip maker thinks the term applies to energy and transportation, where record-high gasoline and oil prices have spurred interest in alternative energy sources and next-generation vehicles.
During the past year and a half, Grove has created his own crash course in electric power, plug-in hybrid vehicles and finding ways of shifting the nation's fleet of vehicles from gasoline. His goal: To draw more attention to electric vehicles.
"The most important thing I would like to do is light that almost half-assumed truth up in neon lights: Electricity in transportation has to be done. It is urgent. It is important that everything else is secondary," Grove said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
"The drumbeat of the electrical transportation is accelerating like nothing I've ever seen in my life," he said.
Grove, 71, who was Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1997, is the latest industry and government heavyweight to push plug-in hybrids and electric cars.
Former CIA director James Woolsey, former Secretary of State George Schultz and Google Inc.'s philanthropic arm, Google.org, have touted the benefits of cars that could plug into a standard wall outlet to recharge the battery.
Several automakers are testing plug-in prototypes that would allow the vehicle to run on electric power for the first 40 miles.
The technology hinges on the development of advanced lithium-ion batteries and companies such as General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. hope to have an extended range plug-in available in limited quantities by 2010.
In the latest edition of The American, published by the American Enterprise Institute, Grove writes that the beauty of electric power is its ability to be produced through multiple sources such as coal, wind and nuclear, and its "stickiness" — it can be transported only over land.
Oil, by contrast, "flows to the highest bidder," making the United States more susceptible to price increases caused by voracious demand for petroleum from growing economies such as China.
While car makers have been developing plug-ins, Grove says the nation should consider ways of retrofitting the 80 million low-mileage pickups, sport utility vehicles and vans on the road to make them capable of running on both gasoline and electric power.
Giving these vehicles "dual fuel" functions would be similar to changes made in other technologies. DVD players, for example, were often combined with VCR tape players when they were first introduced to help consumers make the transition.
To push the technology along, Grove suggests tax incentives to take the risk out of battery development and help offset the costs of conversion kits.
Utilities, he says, could subsidize the early adopters of plug-ins by providing free electric power to the vehicles for the first year to 18 months.
"I think it is a legitimate place for the government to fund, to accelerate it," he said.
Automakers have urged the government to provide more consumer tax incentives and research aid to develop advanced batteries, but they have questioned efforts to retrofit the vehicles.
Any changes to the engine would void the warranty, and the alterations could undermine the vehicle's reliability and safety functions, automakers say.
"We strongly discourage consumers from retrofitting vehicles," said GM spokesman Greg Martin.
Grove says the fledgling plug-in hybrid movement offers parallels to the Homebrew Computer Club from the mid-1970s that helped electronic hobbyists in Northern California set the stage for personal computers. Plug-in hybrid conversion shops could spread the technology in similar ways.
"The personal computer ... went to individuals first before it went to corporations. The conversion goes to individuals," Grove said. "Electric cars ... the corporations are sitting, wishing this whole friggin' thing to go away. Which is exactly what the computer companies' attitude was to personal computers."
Grove has battled Parkinson's disease and devoted millions of dollars and work to support research into the disorder.
He has taken to alternative energy issues with a similar intensity, tapping into a network of plug-in enthusiasts and experts.
Grove says he even bought a textbook on electric and hybrid vehicles written by a University of Akron professor.
"They are all enthusiastically tutoring me," he said.
Grove co-teaches a Stanford University business school seminar and will devote the class next fall to examining ways of making the electric car possible.
He acknowledges that the shift to electric transportation will be a daunting challenge, but he notes that President Franklin Roosevelt worked with Detroit's automakers during World War II to quickly retool their plants to supply the war effort.
At a time of gas prices that exceed $4 a gallon and with the dangers of oil politics, those lessons shouldn't be lost, he said.
"I think technologically it's doable. I think the logic is pretty compelling," Grove said. "Somebody better drive it and play Roosevelt."