Professor Kaushik Rajashekara—“Raja” for short—hasn’t forgotten where his journey began.
“I was born in a village,” says Raja—Devarayasamudram, in the Karnataka state of southwest India.
“You know, Indian names are all very long,” he adds.
Raja did not grow up rich. His father had to work in a town about 60 miles away, so he was usually away from home.
Raja’s father could barely read and write. His mother was illiterate—all the more reason for Raja and his older brothers to work hard in school.
“My mother always made sure I was number one in the class—that was all she understood,” Raja says.
He speaks frankly about why he studied physics, chemistry, and mathematics: to get a good job, you need a good education.
“Even today, the Asian communities in the United States want to make sure their children are highly educated and become an engineer or a doctor,” he says. “Parents push them to be like that.”
“At that time, I was not thinking about the contribution,” he adds.
After graduating from 10th grade in his village, Raja moved to Bangalore, or Bengaluru, for college at Bangalore University. He eventually earned degrees in electrical engineering, including a Ph.D., from Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science (IIS).
But Raja wasn’t a perpetual student. In between and during his studies, he gained valuable experience in the private sector.
“People do their master’s, then they do their Ph.D., then they immediately become a professor,” Raja says. “They don’t know any practical aspects—where it is applied, and what is the significance of the research. If you work in industry, you get an idea of, ‘Where are these things useful?’”
After immigrating to the United States, Raja went on to General Motors/Delphi Technologies and, later, Rolls-Royce. At those companies he worked on everything from early electric and hybrid vehicles to fuel cell vehicles to electric and hybrid electric aircraft.
In 2012, he returned to academia. After a stint at the University of Texas at Dallas, he joined the University of Houston, located in what he calls the “energy capital of the world.”
In 2021, he was awarded the IEEE Medal for Environmental and Safety Technologies, “for contributions to the advancement of transportation electrification technologies for the reduction of emissions and for improving energy efficiency.”
Criticism of electric vehicles often highlights the low ranges of many current batteries as well as the lengthy charging times.
Skeptics also point out that such batteries generally rely on toxic rare earth metals, which are still primarily sourced from China through environmentally damaging mining projects.
Raja, the industry veteran, is optimistic that these problems can be solved, or at least mitigated, in time.
“Cars are coming that can go for 500 to 600 miles [on a charge],” he says, noting that internal combustion engines took more than a hundred years to reach maturity.
“Now people are looking at different types of batteries, like lithium sulfide—that has an energy density twice the lithium-ion battery,” he adds. “Over the years, range will not be an issue.”
Raja points out that new, Uber-like companies offer mobile electric vehicle charging, letting you shop at a grocery store or a mall while your car is charged in the parking lot.
He is also optimistic about research aimed at recycling batteries to minimize pollution and the need for large-scale mining—for example, by reusing old car batteries for energy storage in the electric grid.
He likens worries about the scarcity of rare earths to past fears of peak oil.
“We were all talking about, ‘We are running out of oil.’ But afterward, horizontal drilling came from the United States!” says Raja. “So, it can change—with the new technologies coming, and the new ways of finding resources, I don’t think we will have any problem.”
Raja’s optimism extends to flying cars and air taxis—an interest of his for the past fifteen years. He thinks these technologies would benefit the environment by reducing traffic congestion and avoiding large-scale road development in places such as Africa.
Such aircraft could, he hopes, revolutionize travel the way cell phones revolutionized communication, particularly in developing countries where getting a landline was not easy.
Flying cars, the subject of intermittent research and speculation since the 1950s, can also prompt skepticism. For one thing, how do you keep the vehicles from colliding with each other?
Raja proposes a thought experiment:
“Assume that there are no vehicles on the road and that everything is in the sky. Now one day you decide you want to go on the road. The first thing you’d ask it, ‘How can you put vehicles on the road when so many humans are living there? And rivers are there—and mountains are there.’ You could never make any vehicle go on the road if you ask like that.”
He thinks the technologies in emerging self-driving cars could be adapted to flying cars, reducing the likelihood of collisions or other mishaps.
Raja is no lone environmental warrior. He has generally worked in groups, and he sees his achievements as the culmination of many people who helped him get where he is today—another village, larger than the one where he grew up.
Moreover, he is no activist.
“I am not a Sierra Club member or any of those things—I just teach my students the importance of the environment and how the global warming is affecting the world,” Raja says.
While he does not expect his students to agree with everything he says, he hopes they will see the urgency of the current situation—and continue to innovate.
“We need to do something,” he says.