On a scorching summer day during the 1979 oil crisis, Alex Severinsky, a Soviet refugee, sat for 45 minutes in a sweltering Oldsmobile Cutlass, waiting for the chance to buy gasoline in Dallas. “I’m thinking to myself, in Moscow I’d wait in line in temperatures that were minus 20 to 30 degrees Centigrade for food. Here I’m doing the same thing, not for food but for gasoline!”
With an inventive streak and a Russian Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Severinsky, then 34, began working on concepts to improve fuel efficiency. His research led to a patented breakthrough for a hybrid-electric car that has now put him at odds with Toyota Motor , the world’s largest maker of hybrid vehicles. He has won several rounds in the courts, but Toyota is contesting the amount it was ordered to pay in royalties. If his tiny Florida company, Paice LLC, prevails at an International Trade Commission hearing in July–a long shot–Toyota could be banned from importing its newest hybrids, including the popular Prius.