By Mary Ellen Geist
This story originally appeared on Great Lakes Now and is republished here with permission.
Admit it: some of you feel like you live in your cars.
And car companies are helping automobiles become more habitable each year.
It isn’t just about comfort.
Cars are now WIFI Hot spots and video and gaming sites for your kids. Some cars directly communicate with the owner’s homes via the Internet.
I have a friend who has an espresso set-up that plugs into his cigarette lighter so he can make lattes while he drives across the country.
But what if cars did even more than create a space for more luxury gadgets for drivers, and became tools that provide a life-giving source?
A group of inventors at Ford came up with the idea of creating a car that can produce its own clean drinking water.
Ford broke the news of the prototype earlier this year.
DPTV’s Great Lakes Bureau decided to follow up by talking with two of the inventors working to bring a car that can make clean, filtered drinking water to market.
Below, an interview with Doug Martin and John Rollinger, who are both engineers at Ford Motor Company.
GLB: First, a little bit about your backgrounds. Have you always been “car guys?”
DM: I went to the University of Michigan and worked my way through various departments at Ford and found that Power Train Controls had the most need and I had the most interest in it as well. I bounced around several other departments including Hybrid where I worked for a dozen years. I ended up joining John in Power Train Controls – gasoline engines and all other parts of the vehicle controlled by the Power Train Control module which is basically a big computer.
JR: I was born and raised in Michigan and graduated from Lawrence Tech with a degree in electrical engineering. I joined Ford first as an intern out of college and I spent my entire time in the electronic controls area – sensors, engine controls, transmission controls, electrical, power, air conditioning, climate controls – and that’s where I’ve been for the past 17 years.
GLB: How did you become inventors?
DM: I would say the road for me has a few turns in it. I think being in hybrid gave me a whole different perspective on what the car does and how it does it, because there‘s this whole electrical aspect involving human interface – it’s different to try to coach people and have them understand what the traditional vehicle has done and what it can do in the future. What led to this invention: there’s a billboard in Peru that makes water just from the air passing over it. It makes about 2500 gallons every sixty days in a village in an extremely arid area. So, that locked in the thought – “that’s cool!” – and I wondered how I could get my head around this and expand it. Do I want billboards all over the place? That doesn’t seem too practical. Then it hit me that vehicles are already making water and dripping it on the ground. So – with my aerospace background – I had been at McDonnell Douglas/McDonnel Aircraft in St. Louis for a few years working on F-15’s – they had a system that kinda blew me away called MSOGS (Molecular Sieve Oxygen Generation System.) Instead of taking a bottle of liquid oxygen under the plane for each flight, this thing pulls oxygen out of the air while the plane is flying, then liquefies it and stores it for the pilot to use. All those things together: ………so, I thought it would be great to have something like this that can be applied to water and cars. It’s something I’d like to see happen. And so I wrote my thoughts down, consulted with a few colleagues, and submitted a patent for the idea.
“We went to Home Depot and got some plumbing parts”
JR: There was an interest in both our intellectual property areas and environmental sustainability areas and when they saw Doug’s application they said, “Is this something we could actually do?” So, this is when Doug came to me and said “there’s some interest here. It’s not our day job. Can we do this? How do we do this? How do we get it funded? What car do we put it on?” I was really excited. I thought it was a great idea. We brainstormed and came up with even better ideas. We got a car. We put some money together and went to Home Depot and got some plumbing parts – hoses, tubes, automated pumps for other things in the car – then we laid out how we could get a basic design together we could share inside the company. From there, it got enough further interest that they had a segment on Media Week last year that was like a parody of Shark Tank called “Tech Tank”, and Doug and I were asked to bring in this technology that was at the demo level to compete against several other internal disruptive innovative ideas to see which one the media, the public and Ford Management thought were the best, and of course Doug did a great job representing us and it won.
GLB: What did you actually win?
DM: We got a giant check – it was about 4 and a half feet by 2 feet – and it was a few thousand dollars in a donation from Bill Ford.
GLB: What’s next for the project?
DM: It’s a prototype. It’s been discussed and brainstormed and shared, but the patent is still pending. It has not been granted yet.
JR: There’s been an outpouring of support both inside the company from all levels of management and from the public. The feedback has all been very positive. It’s definitely an idea that people are grabbing on to. As with most things at early prototype levels, there are a lot of things that have to be worked out. We have to look at how you would manufacture it in scale, how will we fit it inside each car – we have to get hoses and tubes throughout the system, it has to look good in the end, it has to be durable. You have to look at the business case: it’s one thing to say, “I can make a car that does that,” but then you also have to make it affordable and make it work for the life of the car, and find out whether it would be commercially viable. But there has certainly been an outpouring of support.
“You’ve got people in disasters like Puerto Rico who could really benefit from this”
GLB: If producing a car that could create its own filtered water could be made available right now, explain how you see it working.
DM: The water is available right now. It comes from the air; it’s condensation.
JR: I think it’s definitely technically possible right now. We have to work on making it practical.
DM: I see this product being for several different groups. One wants the purest cleanest water they can possibly get, that’s even cleaner than bottled water. The other group is – well, it’s kind of like snob appeal. They want the coolest gadgets in the car, and they think it would be cool to have a car that makes water. But then you’ve got the other end of the spectrum, like people in communities like Oakland county who lost their water for almost a week last year, you’ve got Flint, you’ve got people in disasters like Puerto Rico who could really benefit from this. You’ve got so many potential ideal customers. There’s not just one group.
GLB: Walk me through how it works.
JR: As we show in our demonstration, we chose to get it from the air conditioning condenser coil. You know when you’ve had a hot day and you’ve been running your air conditioner for a while and you move your car and you see a big puddle on the ground? That’s basically what we’re collecting. We know that there are places where it pools on the radiators in the front of the car, and we know when it rains all the moisture and dew and rain goes down channels that get funneled through the front of the car and then dumped onto the ground so it’s not just beating all over the car. There are lots of places we can get the initial water and we can collect it in a pan under the air conditioner. Once you have it there, you have a pump or pumps that move the water from the local collection system and then pushes it through a filtering system – there are different types of filters, active and passive systems – the kind we have is passive, like the kind you have in your refrigerator for example where water is forced through a cartridge filter system. The one we have is capable of filtering very, very fine particles, ones you can’t see with the naked eye. And then that water comes out potentially into another little storage reservoir. Then that water comes out and basically into a small fountain. In a real car, you’d have something like a small hose and put it over your cup and fill it. Some parts you could buy. It would be something like a dentist’s spigot, where you’d be able to pull it out and put it over your cup and fill it from this other reservoir of clean water. You could think of other uses – things besides just drinking water, once you have that collected water – but drinking water is certainly the use that captures the imagination.
“This is a ‘Why Not?’ moment for everything with cars”
GLB: It seems as though this is a new way of thinking about the use of a car.
DM: it’s not just transportation anymore. It’s not a stylistic expression anymore. It’s an expression of the car’s impact on the environment. People want hybrid vehicles. They want green, renewable materials in their seats, paints, and other products that go into the manufacturing of a car. And they want the car to be made with minimal potable water, now, too. So, it’s an expression of how you want your impact on the world to be. This is a “Why not?” moment for everything with cars. It’s using technology to make your little piece of the world what you want it be.
JR: Doug’s right. It’s more of a “Why not?” than a “Why?” time. Everybody likes this idea of water in the car. It’s hard to imagine, say, in the future, when all cars will be making water, but it could happen. I think today about air travel. A little over a hundred years ago, we didn’t have planes. Now we take them for granted. It would be so exciting, if, in the future, people said “what – they didn’t have cars they made water?” That would be the really cool outcome here. This is the time in the auto industry where you can envision some things happening in the auto industry that people didn’t think could happen.
DM: It’s kind of like a cup holder. Not long ago, there were no cup holders. Now every car has a cup holder. And now we’ll have something to put in that cup holder!