The idea for an electric car kept JB Straubel up late one summer night in 2003. His tiny, rented house in Los Angeles brimmed that evening with members of Stanford University’s solar car team, who had just finished a race from Chicago. The biennial event was part of a growing movement to stoke interest among young engineers in developing alternatives to gas-powered vehicles. Straubel had offered to play host to his alma mater’s team, and the grueling run left many sleeping on his floor.
Intensely focused on his own projects, Straubel had never joined the team himself during his six years at the Stanford engineering school. But his interests aligned with those of his guests: He too was obsessed by the idea of powering cars with electricity—an interest he had held since his childhood in Wisconsin. After graduating, he had floated between LA and Silicon Valley, struggling to find his place. Straubel didn’t look like a mad scientist intent on changing the world; he had a quietness about him and the bland good looks of a midwestern frat boy. But inside, he had a gnawing desire to do more than take a job with friends at a startup like Google or join the bureaucracy of a Boeing or General Motors. He wanted to create something that changed everything, whether it was in a car or an airplane; he wanted to chase a dream.
Stanford’s team, like its competitors, had designed a car that ran on energy it collected from the sun using solar panels. Small batteries stored some of that energy—for use at night, or else when the sun was obscured by clouds. It being a solar race, however, organizers placed limits on how batteries could be used.