A few sentences in a magazine sparked New Zealand inventor Peter Witehira's drive to design a car battery which would provide a reserve facility — the first real change to car battery design in 50 years. Mr Witehira's invention has promised to free motorists from the problem of leaving their car with the headlights on and returning some time later to find a car which won't start.
In 1987 Mr Witehira read in the Reader's Digest of the need for a car battery which would overcome a situation, where accessories had been left on, which discharged the battery to a level that the battery power output was not sufficient to crank or start the vehicle. He began to think about how to make a battery to do just this. He came up with an idea which was to separate the battery into two parts so one part would always save enough electrical charge to start the car. But in order to make his concept a reality he first had to come to grips with how a battery works. This he did by cutting up a number of car batteries, with a hacksaw, in his garage in Auckland.
Having discovered how a car battery works Mr Witehira started on building his new battery, even using some of the parts from the old batteries he had previously chopped up for study.
The two sections of the battery have two jobs, one section powers such things as the lights, car horn, fan and the other section starts the car. The key to doing this was to design an 'intelligent' electronic device that would connect the two parts of the battery together when the car was being driven but would separate them when the car stopped.
This way both could be charged as the car drove along but only the part which powered the lights would go flat if you forgot to turn the lights off once the car had stopped. When you get back into the car and as soon as the key is put into the ignition the two parts are joined together again and the car can be started.
Mr Witehira realised the switching device would need to be electronic but initially it was a heavy switch controlled by the accelerator pedal. Mr Witehira taught himself how to build this electronic 'intelligent' switching mechanism.
Having successfully designed his battery Mr Witehira had to get backing to make it into a commercial product. Dr Evan Bydder, a scientist at Waikato University, helped him to refine his ideas and after patenting his battery in 1989 he formed the company Power Beat International Limited. In the 1990s the first production prototypes of his battery were being made in Australia but more money was required to fully develop the idea. In 1993 a Canadian company became involved promising to invest in the concept but their cheque for $500,000 bounced and caused large problems for Power Beat. Various legal problems followed the bad cheque, but were eventually resolved to the advantage of Power Beat International.
During these troubled times the company also won the prestigious American R&D 100 award for the research and development of the battery, becoming the first New Zealand company ever to win such an award.
Communications officer at Mr Witehira's company Power Beat International Limited, David Appleton, says this was a just award for Mr Witehira who he describes as having no formal qualifications but a brilliant investigative and intuitive mind. Mr Appleton stated that Mr Witehira has always taken things to pieces to learn how they worked and as a teenager Mr Witehira built his own hot rod car. Before inventing his battery Mr Witehira worked for a number of years as a policeman and then a house designer and builder.
In 1996 the building of a state of the art factory to produce batteries in the Middle East was begun with investment from the Al Tajir family of Dubai, one of the richest families in the world. Mr Appleton said capital to set up a factory here in New Zealand was never available and our environmental and resource consent laws would have slowed any construction of a plant down by a considerable amount of time.
However the electronic part of the batteries are being made in the Waikato by Power Beat at one of the most advanced electronics assembly lines in this country. The batteries have over twice the expected lifespan of normal batteries and are currently being trialed in a number of new cars around the world.
The company is currently designing and making a car engine completely built from aluminium, which is lighter and cheaper than materials used, new windscreen wipers which remove the insects that bombard and stick on the windscreen while driving on the open road and 'deep video imaging' which gives a 3-D effect to television screens, amongst a number of other innovative technologies and products.
Mr Witehira's inventive mind has enabled the Waikato based company to employ 38 staff, of which all but five are involved in research and development. Power beat files the largest number of patents of any company in New Zealand.