Alexander Severinsky thought he had escaped long waits for basic goods when his family fled the Soviet Union in 1978. But barely a year later he found himself in his Oldsmobile Cutlass, in the Texas heat, at the end of a line of cars waiting to gas up.
"I just came from Russia a year ago, where I stand in lines for food, and now what changed? I'm back in line, only for fuel," he said, laughing, in his accented English.
Better fuel efficiency, he reasoned, could boost gas supplies and end the lines. "So I decided to look into what is the problem with engines."
His 15-year quest led him to invent and patent a hybrid gasoline-electric automobile engine. A 1999 prototype, built with support from the University of Maryland and Baltimore's Abell Foundation, doubled the gas mileage on a Cadillac DeVille.
When Toyota introduced its redesigned Prius a few years later - without securing the right to use his patents - Severinsky sued. And like Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper who battled Detroit's Big Three for stealing his idea, Severinsky won. A federal jury awarded his company $4.3 million, plus $25 for every hybrid car that Toyota builds until his patent expires.
The 2005 verdict against Toyota was a vindication for Severinsky, but maybe not as pleasing as peering under the hood of his Toyota-built Lexus hybrid SUV.
"I'm very happy," said Severinsky, who will be inducted Thursday into the Innovation Hall of Fame at the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering. "Close to a million cars with my technology on the streets. It is great honor for the inventor. Toyota already said all future cars will be hybrid, and this is absolutely correct."
He regrets that U.S. automakers, whom he tried to interest in his technology in the 1990s, have been so slow to catch up. "I expected it would be much faster," Severinsky said. "Coming from Russia, my impression of America is that it is a country of innovators. ... [The] automotive industry in the United States became very noncompetitive."
Severinsky's quintessentially American story began 64 years ago in the coal mining Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. His family moved there after World War II because there "was nothing to eat in Kharkov," he said.
Severinsky earned a doctorate in electrical engineering. He found work in the Soviet equivalent of the National Bureau of Standards.
"Compared to other people, it was at the very top materially," he said. "We lived fine. But you have ambitions."
By the late 1970s, food was growing scarce. "I had to go increasingly more frequently to Moscow and Kiev just to buy food," he recalled.
He and his wife applied for exit visas to emigrate to Israel, though they intended to get to the United States. It was not a casual decision. A great-grandfather had left czarist Russia for New York, only to return, appalled by conditions in the city's sweatshops.
"Life in Russia was easier," Severinsky said.
However, other family members had prospered. So, in the Lenin State Library in Moscow, he researched where he could settle in the United States, how much he could earn and what it would cost. He even filled out an IRS 1040 form to estimate his taxes.
"I'm very meticulous in what I do," he explained.
In 1978, Severinsky, 34, his wife (a physician), son and mother-in-law flew to Vienna, Austria, and then to Dallas, where a Jewish group sponsored their resettlement.
He landed an engineering job in the oil industry. His interest in a more efficient automobile began a year later in that suburban Dallas gas line. Experimenting on the freeway in his 1976 Cutlass, Severinsky concluded that its engine was most inefficient at low speeds. It was sized for acceleration and high speeds. He searched in vain for a combination of battery elements that would give an all-electric car the speed and range that consumers expect. Golf carts, perhaps, but not cars.
"It was not physically possible," he said.
He thought a powerful electric motor could provide the brief power surges needed for acceleration and serve for low power and slow speeds. A small gasoline engine could handle highway cruising and battery recharging. It was a promising idea, but one that had been kicked around since at least 1902. Severinsky knew he needed to learn more about power electronics, the technology that converts battery voltage into the power to drive electric motors.
So he changed jobs. He picked up skills in the computer controls that he would need to manage power from a hybrid's gas engine and electric motor, and then learned power electronics. Moving to Maryland in 1986, he became an expert in the "uninterruptible power supply" systems that keep big computers running during power failures. With help from the University of Maryland's Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech) incubator, he started his own company.