Weekend Reading: Ingenious

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In 2007, the X Prize Foundation announced that it would give $10 million to anyone who could build a safe, mass-producible car that could travel 100 miles on the energy equivalent of one gallon of gas. The challenge attracted more than one hundred teams from all over the world. Jason Fagone follows four of those teams in Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America.

The X Prize Foundation is most famously known for its first challenge to launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface, twice within two weeks. The XPrize is modeled on the prize that got Lindbergh to fly across the Atlantic. (He was not just an adventurer; He was flying for the Orteig Prize of $25,000.) The X Prize founder uses the “bald appeal of human greed to achieve an idealistic goal.” Like the Orteig Prize, the Space X prize had very simple rules.

The Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize was a bit more muddled. Originally it was supposed to be a cross country race. Then it became a series of tests at the Michigan International Speedway. It had three categories: Mainstream, Alternative Tandem, and Alternative side-by-side.

Fagone looks at these four teams as the prepare for and compete for the prize.

Oliver Kuttner’s Edison2 cars get the most ink. His theme was a relentless focus on reducing weight and improving aerodynamics. He had a car for each of the three categories.

Team Illuminati was literally built in the cornfields of Illinois. The team was lead by a part-time tinkerer using electric motors.

The West Philly Hybrid X Team was mostly students from the after school program at a West Philadelphia High School. Their goal was to make existing mainstream cars more efficient. They rebuilt a Ford GT using biodiesel and a Ford Focus with a hybrid electric gas system.

Aptera chose to go with a lightweight three-wheeled coupe. This was the best funded team of the four.

The book is well-written and enjoyable to read. At times I struggled to keep track of which team was which. Eventually, Edison2 elbows the other teams out of the narrative and takes a more prominent role in the book. I think that’s because the team leader was a big robust character all by himself.

The narrative itself drags and lacks the suspense of a good climax because of the design of the competition. The tests happened over a series of weeks in June and July of 2010. The winner was announced later in September.

There are bits of the subtitle sprinkled in the book about how to revive innovation and development in America. The goal of the X Prize is encourage that kind of innovation and forward-thinking. As the prize rules got muddled for the automotive competition, so the narrative of this book got muddled.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided me with a review copy of the book.