Brian Wynne

Thinking In Another Language

Each morning, Brian Wynne, President of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, winds silently down the streets of his neighborhood as he drives to work.  Though he leaves before most people wake up, he never worries about disturbing his neighbors.  His car, an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle, drives completely silently, utilizing electric drive technology until the battery is depleted, at which point the combustion generator kicks in to recharge while still in motion.

“They are so much more efficient, but we have to get people off the notion that they’re glorified golf carts,” Brian explains.  “There’s a real socialization process in getting people to see something in a different way.  There’s a shift in mindset that must occur for people to appreciate silence over the roar of an engine, for example.  It’s like getting them to learn another language.  But once people get used to the new experience, they’ll never go back to traditional combustion-engine vehicles.”

The Electric Drive Transportation Association was founded as a collaborative effort between the automobile and utility industries in 1989 to promote electric cars in response to the oil crises of the 1970’s.  “Things were starting to turn back to the grid,” Brian explains.  “It stands to reason that electric motors are better than combustion engines from an efficiency and power-to-wheel point of view, and they always will be.  Electric cars have always existed, and actually made up the majority of the vehicles in the market at the turn of the last century.  They were sidelined, however, due to their inability to carry energy with them.  Petroleum and gas won because they make for very energy-dense fuel that’s easy to transport, so we’ve built our transportation system around that.  But now we have a transportation system that is a slave to the monopoly of fuel, and that’s a threat.  It’s time for a new identity.”

For years, the government has been searching for the solution that can displace oil in order to provide sustainable fuel that America can supply itself.  Electricity fits this bill in that it can be created from multiple domestic resources, including coal, wind, solar, geothermal, and natural gas.  Thus, while the oil industry continues to control the marketplace, considerable advances are being made in battery technology, and while that technology has not yet achieved the energy density of traditional fuel, electric motors far surpass their oil-guzzling counterparts in terms of efficiency.  With that in mind, the Electric Drive Transportation Association originally set its sights on creating electric cars, but have since refocused on advancing electric drive technology.  The science is used not only in electric cars, but also in plug-in hybrids and range-extended vehicles like the one Brian drives.

The Association, which provides solutions that land at the intersection of energy, environment, and transportation, has helped to put in place most of the current federal policies that promote electric drive technology in the market today.  It has a diverse membership base that includes manufacturers of automobiles and batteries, energy suppliers, Lithium miners, and small company owners looking to advance their business models.

Brian heard about the work being done at the Association and was fascinated with the technology, leading him to apply for the position of President in 2004.  “I’ve always promoted technology in the marketplace,” he says.  “True technological innovation has the power to change the backbone and infrastructure of the way our society consumes energy, and that’s what really drives me.  That’s why the electric drive technology hooked me.  It’s a solution crying out for a marketplace with the challenges we’re facing today in the areas of emissions and the environment, not to mention the billions of dollars flowing out of this country every day to pay for foreign oil.  It’s a solution that addresses our energy security in a way that promotes our national security, and it’s a solution that creates jobs.”

Before joining the Association, Brian spent the majority of his academic career and his early professional career absorbing foreign policy and geopolitics, which ultimately led him to where he is today.  He grew up in the Binghamton area of Vestal, New York, and his father began his career in the steel industry before becoming an engineer for IBM.  “He left the steel industry just before it started sliding into a really tight place, and I asked him how he knew to get out when he did,” Brian remembers.  “At the time, the computer industry was at the bottom of the hockey stick, but all his friends from engineering school had gone to IBM and were doing very well, so he joined them, sensing computers would be the next big thing.”

As a young boy, Brian was a free spirit, roaming the town on his bike and always looking to see what was going on beyond the next hill.  During his father’s tenure as a quality engineer at IBM, he traveled overseas often and sparked in his son a fascination in the world around him that extended far beyond the parameters of his hometown.  He would read about international relations in newspapers and magazines, dreaming of one day becoming the Secretary of State.

In addition to this burgeoning interest in the way the world worked on a global scale, Brian played violin in the local Binghamton Youth Symphony and landed his first official job at age sixteen flipping hamburgers at McDonalds.  After high school, he went on to attend the University of Scranton, where he earned a degree in history and economics under the assumption that his next step would be law school.  Much to his parents’ dismay, however, he decided to study in Austria for his junior year, having been told by a professor that the only way to really get into International relations was to experience international cultures.  “My father thought I was crazy,” Brian laughs today.  “He told me that studying in Europe was for the high and mighty and rich, and asked what I thought I would learn over there that I wouldn’t learn here.  I told him that I didn’t know, but I’d let him know when I got back.  I was smart enough to at least acknowledge that I had no idea.”

His year in Austria proved to be extremely challenging, both financially and academically.  The American dollar plummeted in value while he was there, leaving him so low on funds that he was forced to sell plasma at times.  From a cultural standpoint, however, he found a new identity.  “Up until that point, my surroundings had been essentially determined for me and provided to me, and like most people, I built my identity around that.  But being in Austria, I found that wasn’t actually who I was after all,” he comments.  “I learned not only to speak in another language, but also to think in another language.  In different cultures, people don’t think the same way, so you can’t simply translate your thoughts.  You have to learn to see the world in a new way and to think accordingly.”

Brian returned to the States to finish his last year of college, during which he began setting his sights on graduate school at the School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.  He missed the deadline to apply, however, and having lost his desire to attend law school, he spent the year after graduation working at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.  During that year, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study the prospects of German Reunification under a prestigious historian in Cologne, Germany.  “Everyone told me my research was going to be a waste of time, and that reunification would never happen in our lifetimes,” he recalls.  “I was over there in 1981, and the wall came down in 1989.”

Upon completing his Fulbright research, Brian attained his master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and went on to start his career on Capitol Hill with the hopes of learning the political dynamic behind trade policy.  He originally worked as an unpaid intern for Senator John Heinz’s staff, and then took a full-time position with Senator Charles Percy, then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, doing international trade policy work.  After Percy lost his seat, Brian went on to work as a trade policy lobbyist for the American Electronics Association.  “That began my socialization into the world of trade associations, building policies and representing them on behalf of the industry,” Brian explains.  “Most of the job was to understand the industry and where it was going, and how to get these blood sport competitors to actually work together.  In much the same way I learned to think in a different language in Austria, it’s about getting people on adverse sides to think in each other’s language.  And that’s what I do today.”

After working for American Electronics, Brian was offered his first executive position at Automatic Identification Manufactures International, and from there went on to work for the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a public/private collaboration.  It was during that time that he encountered the Prius Hybrid and first became interested in advanced technology vehicles.

When the search for a new President of the Electronic Drive Transportation Association was announced, Brian decided to jump in.  The honed expertise he had acquired in the industry paired with his broad knowledge of international markets to make him a prime candidate, and in 2004, he landed the position.

Under Brian’s leadership, the organization has successfully transitioned from a coalition to a trade association, while also restructuring their board and changing the way the organization is governed.  As the chief guide through those changes, Brian also sought to focus the value proposition on federal policy lobbying.  “I approached it from the standpoint that most good trade associations take,” he comments.  “You get people together and determine what the consensus is, and you lobby for that.  You don’t lobby for what the big dollars want; you lobby for what everybody wants.  And since we’re a community of around a hundred diverse interests working together, I think we’re at an advantage.  Consensus, for us, is the product of a wide range of stakeholders voicing their concerns, not just the product of a select few.  The things we lobby for are more representative of the industry’s best interests as a whole.”

This style of leadership—one that is consensus-driven, ethical, and committed to innovation—is not a stagnant artifact of the past.  Rather, it has evolved dynamically throughout Brian’s career.  “My enthusiasm for these cars and this technology has to be balanced with a sense of humility,” he affirms.  “What we are doing here as an organization and a community is going to take such a long time that we don’t always know how to get from point A to point B.  It’s an evolving effort—one in which we must remain flexible and responsive to what we see around us.”  In order to lead such an effort, Brian focuses on the mission, which keeps his team cohesive, streamlined, and certain.  With this in mind, he advises young entrepreneurs entering the business world today to think big, and to never do it alone.  “Success and business is a team sport,” he says.  “That’s why I love associations.  You get people who don’t typically work together, synchronize their voices so that the message is louder, and make something significant happen.”

Today, Brian sees no end for his time with the Association.  “The mission I’m working on with my members is not short term.  It’s going to take a while, but I’m ready for that,” he acknowledges.  “This mission is for America, as well as the entire world.  I have contacts all over the world promoting this technology.  It’s a global phenomenon, and I want America to lead it.”

As of now, Brian sees the future resting in the expansion of battery capacity, and in finding new ways to charge an electric car while it’s in motion.  European cities, for instance, are currently investigating new ways to put electric fuel into the road, which could open opportunities for electric cars that include such innovative concepts as getting a charge at a red light.  “Civil engineers are really starting to think about this,” Brian explains.  “They know how to build a road, so now they need to figure out how to put electricity in that road.”

As with any innovative leap forward, such advancements will inevitably come from learning, and thinking in, another language—one that sounds foreign at first to our oil-fluent ears, but becomes familiar with enough practice.  As Brian continues to teach the world the language of electric drive technology, and as society develops new capacities that allow it to think accordingly, so too can any individual learn a new way of thought that opens the door to new identities and new possibilities.

Brian Wynne

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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