Some Philadelphia public school students who like fast, cool cars want to succeed where Detroit has failed.
A student team from West Philadelphia High is trying to come up with a prize-winning design for a super fuel-efficient car. But they have some stiff competition. WHYY’s Susan Phillips has this David and Goliath story.
Radio transcript: The race is on to build an affordable, safe car that gets incredible gas mileage. At stake is a ten million dollar prize sponsored by the X Foundation and Progressive Insurance. More than 60 teams were eliminated in the first cut. The 43 remaining contenders include the Indian based Tata Motors, which owns Jaguar, California’s Tesla Motors, Cornell University’s 55-member team, and West Philadelphia High School’s Automotive Academy.
In a shop near 48th and Walnut streets, the West Philly Hybrid X team works to transform a humble Ford Focus into the dream vehicle for a green world: A car that gets 100 miles to the gallon.
Wells: With the way today’s economy is, with gas prices rising and cars getting 18 miles to the gallon, no one is going anywhere. You spend more on gas, than you would on your car.
Jacques Wells is an 18-year-old senior. His team’s car uses both electric and bio-diesel engines. Wells and his fellow students want a car that’s easy on the environment, easy on the pocket book, and well….cool…unlike the current breed of hybrids.
Wells: When people think hybrid cars, they think Prius. When we think Prius, we think vomiting. No offense to Toyota. But I think the Prius is disgusting. And you know, we wanted to prove that hybrid cars could be cool.
So, the team put a Harley Davidson engine under the hood of a Ford Focus and converted it to run on biodiesel fuel made from Pennsylvania soybeans.
Wells can’t believe that Detroit automakers have done so little to make fuel efficient cars.
Wells: We went to the EPA testing lab in Detroit, we went to the Ford Global Technology Headquarters in Detroit, I asked everyone that question and still I have not gotten an answer. I feel as though if we as a high school team stumbled upon this technology why can’t they? They have multi-million dollar budgets, and we have to hold fundraisers every week.
Wells’ teacher, Simon Hauger, has a theory about why Detroit shunned the idea.
Hauger: It’s easy to build a million dollar car that gets over a 100 miles to the gallon. Or it’s easy to build a car that gets a hundred miles per gallon that only weighs 500 pounds that you wouldn’t want to get into a wreck in. But to build a car that you can afford, and that is safe and gets 100 miles a gallon, that’s a real challenge.
Hauger leads the team along with several automotive instructors. He says the adults make some of the decisions, like which drive train to use. But he says most design challenges are left to the kids. Even though West Philly has beaten teams like MIT in other contests, he says this competition is a bit daunting.
Hauger: When they get down to the sweet 16 in March Madness there’s always a small school that no one thought would be in it. We’re like that. We’re in a little over our head in many respects. They’ve got teams of engineers. Cornell University posted a little blurb about their team. The captain of the unsprung weight team was doing a podcast. We don’t even have an unsprung weight team and we’ve got one captain for our whole team, and we were like, what the hell is unsprung weight. Should we be worried about it?
But the kids are wildly optimistic. Karysma Cambridge stands just 4-feet-11 inches tall. Still, she says, she can fix brakes in high heels – and do it better than the guys.
Cambridge: None of the competition really don’t faze us. Everyone on the team is confident. You could say we have a little cockiness to us . But from my point of view, every human being is the same. It’s just who puts the more effort into it. So it’s not like they better than we are, we doin’ the same they are, and plus we doin’ it on a low budget.
That cockiness is not without foundation. Progressive Automotive X prize officials say the quality of the West Philly team’s work equals that of the more established teams. The next round of the competition will likely be in January, with a winner to be decided in the fall. In the meantime, teacher Simon Huager and his students tinker away without an “unsprung weight captain.”
Hauger: We’re delusional. That’s part of the secret to our success. We always think we’re going to win; we ignore reality.