Q & A with Dr. Alan Mantooth: May 2022
Updated: Aug 2
Alan Mantooth, Ph.D.
The Twenty-First Century Research Leadership Chair in Engineering,
Department of Electrical Engineering,
University of Arkansas
WE AMERICANS HAVE always been a restless lot, yearning for stability while we dream of the road. Cars equal freedom, and what’s more American than that? Now, today, Governor Asa Hutchinson has set the goal of Arkansas’ becoming a global leader of next-generation transportation. This is a big, important story, and we—along with our sister publication ITArkansas Magazine—will be covering it from many angles. For now, though, we wanted to get a grounding in the plans from a key member of the team tasked with making this ambitious goal a reality.
The governor has set Arkansas the goal of becoming a global leader of next-gen transportation by 2030. Where does that stand?
It’s interesting that you ask. Because we, the Arkansas Council on Future Mobility, had our first future mobility call today. Those on the call ranged from energy companies to trucking companies to infrastructure. We set some goals and objectives for the things we want to try to deliver to the governor by November. That’s the timeline he’s given us.
But let me take a step back from that Council meeting for a moment. In the transportation field itself, I think you can easily conclude that this electrification thing is coming our way and there’s no stopping the momentum. Companies like Ford, GM, BMW, and Mercedes are all going electric, or at least hybrid. Every car manufacturer has an electric version. And if they don’t, they’re going to be left out.
This means at least 50 percent of your vehicles in the future are going to be electric or hybrid. And, yeah, there’ll always be some purely gasoline vehicles for a long time. I’ve got a 1977 280Z, and I’m not giving it up.
I don't blame you.
Although gas may be 10 dollars a gallon for it. Anyway, beyond cars, think about freight trains, trucking, aircraft. These are areas people don’t normally associate with electrification, but it’s happening. So, at the end of the day, it just makes sense if you don’t have to pay a premium for it up front. Right now on heavy trucks, there’s a premium. For cars, there’s a bit of a premium.
I think that premium can be overcome with additional research and development, and, quite frankly, mass manufacturing. I mean, if Tesla’s the only one that’s going to build an appreciable number of these, yeah, it’s going to be a premium. But when Ford, GM, and Toyota throw their might behind it, then it’s going to be cost parity.
Of course, we must be very careful—the kinds of things they put in these fancy electric vehicles go way beyond what we put in typical vehicles. Take your typical sedan now, from Mercedes. It’s not electric at all. But if you look at that sedan, there’s in excess of 25 computer chips on that thing right now.
So the age of electronification, to make up a word, is already upon us. Now when you add to that the electric vehicle and its electric drive train, electric motor, and the energy management system that goes with that, you’ve added a few more computers. We’re already kind of there with computer monitoring of transmissions, antilock braking systems, airbag systems, not to mention the comfort systems that are in so many of these vehicles.
Well, look what happened: We couldn’t get computer chips so we have a shortage of vehicles. Because we depend on semiconductor chips for the Engine Control Unit, which we then depend on for controlling the thermal of the transmission, for telling us when our car needs maintenance.
It’s all computer driven. That’s just the digital age, and it’s a good thing. And it’s evidence that this tidal wave is coming at us, that electrification and electronification are going to continue. And there are good reasons for it, not the least of which is the environment. But, you know, there are those who are opposed to it.
What do you say to the nay-sayers?
They say, “Look, we’re still going to have to burn the coal to generate the electricity.” And I say, “No, we don’t.” We’re proving that we can have a huge penetration of solar and wind and not have to have all coal-fired plants. Just look at all of them that are being decommissioned.
Because quite frankly, they just don’t make much monetary sense compared to solar now. Solar is below parity. We can build a solar plant that puts out the same amount of power as a coal-fired plant, and the solar plant is cheaper.
So that cost argument doesn’t hold water anymore. And that’s what mass manufacturing does for you. And so, you know, for all the finger pointing we like to do at China, China brought the cost of solar panels down to a point where it went below coal-fired plants.
This just means that if we’re going to compete in that market, we’ve got to be able to build panels that inexpensively. So, we have to look globally. If there’s a place where these things can be built inexpensively, as long as the supply chain is kept open, everybody’s happy.
So that’s the broader perspective. And now, when you start looking at it from Arkansas’s standpoint, what’s Arkansas’s play here?
You took the words right out of my mouth.
We actually have a really good position. Number one, we’re located right in the middle of the nation. Look at the trucking that comes in and out of Arkansas. When you combine the fleets of Walmart, J.B. Hunt, Tyson, Arkansas Best, and PAM and all the others, my goodness. A big portion of trucking originates right here in Arkansas, or is controlled out of Arkansas.
Now look at a second part of the equation: One third of the nation’s electric energy is managed out of Arkansas. And you say, “How is that?” Well, that’s Entergy; that’s the cooperatives. But it’s also Southwest Power Pool and MISO. They control all the wind power, and they manage the transmission throughout the center part of the nation. And they have headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas. So a big part of the country’s electrical energy is managed out of here.
We also have steel mills in Arkansas, which means we have the beginnings of a lot of the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle of next-generation transportation. Now it just needs to be coordinated and managed.
That brings up another valuable piece that we can’t ignore. In our opening this morning, the Council chairman said, “Why did Wichita, Kansas, become the capital of Aerospace?” And he said, “It’s very simple. When you look back and study it, it’s the rich oil men from the Eldorado fields in the 19-teens and 20s—they invested in Aerospace. They brought the big players in there, and they educated the workforce, and they built parts and planes. They invested in this community.” And that’s really no different than what we’re talking about in
investing in Arkansas.
If you bring the investment into Arkansas, you’re going to have the impact in this region. One of the things we discussed is that we sort of have to be willing to erase the borders of the state just a little bit. We need to be very cognizant of what Tennessee and Oklahoma and Texas are doing in their infrastructure build-out, so when a customer drives through Arkansas or starts in Arkansas and goes some other place, there’s a compatibility, a seamless transition in the infrastructure into those states as they go down that interstate. Whether they’re driving a car or driving a heavy truck.
So, again, there are many things to be studied and discussed. But I think this Council is going to focus a lot on what the infrastructure needs are, and how that promotes Arkansas.
It sounds like electricity is the centerpiece of all this. Do you mean that Arkansas would become a place where Ford and others would make their cars? Or would it be more about what goes in the cars?
I feel like the answer is both. But I don’t think you’re going to talk about a Ford or a GM. They’re so Detroit-based, and just going electric isn’t going to change them. But what it is going to do is for the same reasoning that Intel is building a big chip plant in Ohio.
Why are they going from the Coast to the Rust Belt? Well, supply chain. And the other thing is, workforce. So the thing that brings them to Arkansas, the reason that the electric vehicle technology company Canoo decided to make its headquarters in Arkansas, and Envirotech, and some of these others, is because of workforce, and cost of doing business, and proximity to steel mills. Because the steel that’s coming out of those plants over in Eastern Arkansas, where’s it going to go right now? It’s going to go right across the river to a Toyota plant in Mississippi. Or one up in Tennessee near Memphis. That plant, that future car plant, needs to be on the Arkansas side.
And is that going to be Toyota, or is it going to be a startup company? One of the things that Elon Musk has done is show that people other than Ford and GM and Toyota can build cars.
So now people are saying, “You know, if we throw enough cash at this, and we get the right people who know the automobile industry, then we could probably build these cars.”
We’ve also got battery manufacturers that are looking at potentially locating battery manufacturing in Oklahoma or Arkansas. And that’s another strength of ours—we have these lignite deposits down in south Arkansas. From there, you can extract lithium to build lithium ion batteries.
So, will a battery plant emerge in south Arkansas? Maybe. But let’s look at batteries a little more. Will cars always be lithium-ion-battery based? Or will there be another form of energy storage? Like say, hydrogen?
Batteries, I want to go on record as saying, are an environmental concern that could become a disaster. We’ve been dealing with little triple A and double A batteries in landfills for a while now. And so I’m always worried about car batteries. They talk about extracting all the useful lithium and everything, and that’s great. I hope that works. That will continue to serve us for 50 years. But, eventually, the long-term answer is we have to harness hydrogen, because we can generate it.
We can generate it from excess renewable energy. And I don’t care if it’s only 20 percent effective to generate from wind into ammonia or hydrogen. I don’t care, that doesn’t matter. What are you going to do with the power otherwise? It’s like solar—like solar power conversion. The conversion from light to electricity is only 20 to 30 percent efficient. But if the sun’s shining, who cares? Just convert it. You don’t care that it’s not 100 percent efficient, because there’s no byproduct.
You’re an electrical engineer, so what will your role will be in this whole thing?
In the Council or in this whole eco system? [Laughs].
Okay. In the Council, infrastructure will be a separate committee, and I imagine that’s where I’ll be contributing. In the eco system, electrical engineers are central to it. Because any time you have power conversion, then you have electrical engineers involved. Obviously if you’re talking about battery electrification, battery-based, you’re going from a chemical-based energy-storage system.
But how do you charge and discharge that? With electricity. You’re always converting to and from electricity, okay? You’re charging the batteries with electricity, and you’re discharging it into a motor that’s giving us movement. Or you’re discharging it into other electronics.
So my part of that is in the energy conversion. It’s the charging electronics, whether they’re on-board or fast-chargers sitting at a station. It’s the power distribution, and how do I get the power to that? Because we’re talking about fast-charging stations. And we’re trying to charge up a car in 10 minutes. That’s a lot of power.
And so, you’re talking about every Loves truck stop becoming a substation. That’s what it becomes. As a result of that, that’s where I live—getting the energy to the chargers, the design of the chargers, the chargers inside the car, as well as the power electronics that drive the car. Whether that’s a drive on each wheel, or a single drive, or a dual drive, or however that is. We at our research centers design all those electronics. We’ve put them in Caterpillar bulldozers, we’ve put them on hybrid electric aircraft, we’ve put them in the Toyota Prius.
These are the kinds of things that our group has done here in the last 10 years or so.
And the message I want to get out to moms and pops across the state is, “Y’all need to talk up being an electrical engineer to your kids. Because our numbers are dropping, and the price for an electrical engineer is about to go through the roof.”
As I’ve already pointed out, a car today is more of an electric vehicle, instead of just a mechanical vehicle. Why do you think they talk about the cost of ownership being so much less? Because electrification, such as what our UA Power Group does, eliminated a bunch of hydraulics and mechanical thingies.
I’m not saying mechanical engineering’s not a great field to go into. But this whole reasoning behind why someone would go into mechanical engineering versus electrical engineering simply does not hold water. I hear this from kids all the time, “Well, it’s a broader field.”
Let me see if I got this straight. What’s broader than the people who invented the computers, and it was such a big thing, we had to spin it out and call it computer engineering. Okay? Let’s talk about biomedical engineering—ooh, electrical. Let’s talk about your communications—ooh, electrical. Power engineering—ooh, electrical. From the time you get up in the morning and turn off that alarm clock, which is electrical, and turn on the lights, which are electrical—from that point until you go back to bed, you’re going to touch electrical things many times throughout the day.
You prove to me what’s broader and has a greater impact on society than electrical engineering, and I will buy you dinner. There’s a reason that the National Academies named the electric power grid as mankind’s #1 contribution in the 20th Century.
One final question: You love your Datsun Z from the '70s, and most of us have some favorite car in our past. Is a car a car, no matter what? In other words, will electric cars "electrify" American drivers the way so many of our coming-of-age cars did?
You know, what is it about cars that gets our blood going, eh? The rumble, the takeoff, the cornering? For some it’s the comfort of a luxury car with premium sound systems and a smooth, quiet drive. All of these can be had in an electric vehicle, with maybe the exception of bona fide engine sounds (we might have to synthesize those, because electric cars are quiet). But electric vehicles will be able to tow, go off-road, you name it. Their performance can be even better in some cases. They can, if needed, accelerate even faster than internal combustion engines.
The only thing that may be lost is the tinkering. I’m not sure it will be possible, even for mechanically inclined car enthusiasts, to tinker with these engines and battery systems the way we’ve always liked to do. That’s another good reason to keep some of the old combustion engine cars and trucks around—we may be relegated to doing our tinkering on them.