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EcoMotors: can we trust Bill Gates?

On the 12th of July in Detroit, the CEO of EcoMotors International, Don Runkle, announced that the company had secured “Series B” funding from two key investors: Khosla Ventures of Menlo Park, California, and Bill Gates. In the accompanying press release Bill Gates was cited as saying:

“The opoc™ engine can be an important step in providing affordable, low-emission transportation for the developing world…EcoMotors has developed a promising technology that could help reduce levels of greenhouse gas emissions in a low-cost, globally relevant way.”

There is no doubting the genius of Bill Gates, who has created a truly amazing business empire and at the same time become one of the richest men in the world. There is also no doubting his personal commitment to using a large proportion of his wealth in what might be broadly defined as socially or environmentally motivated projects through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bill Gates is not necessarily best placed to judge whether or not the technology that lies at the heart of the Ecomotors International business is indeed the answer to the environmental problems associated with the car

The interesting question, however, is whether putting his name in public to the further development of Ecomotors International is beneficial to the company above and beyond the actual financial transaction; and if so then why should that be the case?

Clearly the management team at EcoMotors International are themselves already established senior figures in the global automotive industry with impressive reputations long established. Don Runkle was VP of North America engineering for General Motors and involved in the GM EV1 car; while the Chairman and Chief Technical Officer Prof. Peter Hofbauer was head of Powertrain Development at Volkswagen. The management team are, therefore, not exactly short of credibility.

Bill Gates, on the other hand, for all his undoubted expertise, is not necessarily best placed to judge whether or not the technology that lies at the heart of the EcoMotors International business is indeed the answer to the environmental problems associated with the car. It is helpful that the other investor named, Khosla Ventures, has a reputation for investing capital into emergent and sustainable business concepts, but it remains the case that this is an example of what might be termed “celebrity leverage”.

it is important to retain a sense of critical detachment where celebrity endorsements are concerned

It is frequently the case that those who have attained a degree of fame and status in one area of endeavour can then feel able to pronounce on issues outside their realm of competence and that, within the general cult of celebrity that epitomises the modern era, we accord them a respectful hearing. Business celebrities like Bill Gates, or others such as Richard Branson, are adept at making their voices heard and frequently attach their names to projects such as this. For the company, this probably means more coverage than would otherwise have been the case.

This is not to question the EcoMotors concept itself or to belittle the progress the company has made. Rather, the point here is that it is important to retain a sense of critical detachment where celebrity endorsements are concerned. Next time I go to buy a computer operating system I will almost certainly go with the judgement of Bill Gates; but when it comes to the evaluation of sustainable mobility it might be necessary to make my own mind up.

Dr Peter Wells is a Reader at Cardiff Business School, where he is a Co-Director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research and leads the automotive industry research programme within BRASS, also in Cardiff University. Dr Wells is also a director of AutomotiveWorld.com’s sister website AWPresenter.com. He can be contacted on wellspe@cardiff.ac.uk.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.