(Reuters) - Ford Motor Co’s shareholders meeting has been a less colorful affair since Daniel Karpen stopped attending.
After nearly a decade of using the event to get Henry Ford’s great grandson to heed his invention, he sat it out last year because its technology had become too costly.
At this year’s meeting, set for Thursday, the 64-year-old engineer will again be a likely no-show. Now he says the gadfly approach is just not working.
“It’s gotten to the point where I realize that this thing is not going to fly unless it gets media attention,” Karpen said in an interview last week. He has been a fixture at the annual meeting since he bought 200 shares in Ford in early 2003.
With his disheveled shock of long gray hair and brightly painted wooden clogs, Karpen has had no trouble getting noticed.
At the Ford meetings, whenever the floor opened up for general comment, the engineer from Long Island, New York, would dart to the podium, hold up a light bulb, and in a high nasal voice launch into the virtues of neodymium oxide technology, for which he holds several patents.
Then he would ask Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. if the company had finally had time to evaluate the technology and Karpen’s assertions that car headlamps and windshields enhanced with neodymium oxide last longer and eliminate glare, an issue that has plagued drivers since the 1920s.
Ford usually responded by thanking Karpen and telling him that company engineers in the lobby or back in Dearborn, Michigan, would take a look at his claims. They typically told him the technology cost too much.
Last year, Karpen decided to skip the meeting, since the price of neodymium oxide, along with many other rare-earth minerals, had skyrocketed. He initially planned to return if prices stabilized. They did, but in the meantime his zeal for performing waned.
At the annual meeting in 2010 it was clear his pitch was getting old.
The eighth and last time they met, Karpen asked Ford if he wanted to hear the same speech.
“I don’t want to say no, but if you have something new to tell us, that would be great,” Ford said. “By the way, I like your shoes, once again.”
If the retiring shareholder gadfly and character Evelyn Y. Davis has been the self-proclaimed “queen of the corporate jungle,” then the equally diverting Karpen is Tarzan. He is also well-known in his hometown of Huntington, New York, as an activist at the town council, where he once memorably protested limits on fishing at the local lake.
“I literally spilled a can of worms in a meeting and was on my hands and knees picking them up,” he said.
Karpen is hardly alone when it comes to gearheads with bright ideas. In the roughly 125 years of automobile production, a cottage industry of engineers, scientists and mechanics has come along with myriad proposals for making cars faster, safer, more efficient or more durable.
These entrepreneurs spend their days knocking on the doors of carmakers and auto suppliers in hopes of getting a contract. Scores of innovations are never adopted because of concerns over cost, or because new technology would require an industry with long lead times and high capital demands to change production processes.
“There’s always basically been these guys who think they have a great idea, but they can’t bust through the bureaucracy of the car business,” said Bill Visnic, an analyst with consumer research site Edmunds.com.
“Sometimes, those things are definitely ‘aha moments’” Visnic said. “Taking the lead out of gasoline or the engineer who pushed Ford to adopt intermittent wipers are great examples.”
Many auto parts stores, in fact, sell Karpen’s “Tru-view” lights to people needing replacement bulbs, but the wider industry has so far ignored him.
Karpen’s invention has been years in the making. He was first introduced to neodymium oxide when he walked into a Manhattan store in 1988. The shopkeeper showed him bulbs that integrated the compound, allowing them to selectively filter out yellow light, which reduces glare. Karpen took a few home and tried them. Then he went back and bought enough lights for his whole house.
About a year later he was driving through upstate New York in his Dodge Dart when it dawned on him to put the lights in cars. By 1995, Karpen had the patents he needed and eventually found an auto supplier willing to make them.
He also patented the process for enhancing windshields and rearview mirrors with neodymium oxide. “It’s like you don’t need your sunglasses because your windshield already has them on,” he said.
Karpen is concerned that without coverage by the auto media press corps, his idea will never hit the mainstream.
“When this thing catches on it is going to be big,” he said. “B-I-G ... big.”
Reporting by John D. Stoll; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Prudence Crowther