Writer Jason Fagone was at Powerhouse Arena presenting his new book, Ingenious, a look at several teams chasing the hundred-mile-per-gallon-car X Prize challenge. Along with Fagone was X Prize contestant Kevin Smith of Illuminati Motor Works. Smith brought his entry, the Illuminati Motor Works 7. The car has since received a slightly updated body.
Fagone made a brief powerpoint presentation looking at the history of automobile. He pointed out that Ford’s Model T achieved twenty miles to the gallon, but since then, average fleet miles per gallon has only inched up to twenty-five miles to the gallon. While there has been tremendous improvements in automotive technology, most of the efficiency has moved towards bigger and heavier cars.
At the dawn of the automotive industry, car manufacturers were in the startup phase. Hundreds of makers competed and all of them innovated. They raced against each other to prove their technologies, leading to customers buying some of the fastest cars. But after the initial startup phase, the industry consolidated leading to less competition — and less innovation.
There were some early examples of attempts to reduce air drag on cars, Fagone says, pointing to the Chrysler Air Flow, a commercial disaster. But primarily, market demands for style have failed to keep pace with technological improvements. Consumers want bigger cars.
Ingenious is as much about the people as they cars. “They are inventors. That’s what excited me about them,” Fagone said about the people. He followed four teams as they built cars in pursuit of the prize.
One team that Fagone mentioned was lead by a high school math teacher frustrated that traditional education seemed to failing his students. Instead, he turned to innovating cars. His students preferred sportier cars, but found ways to make them more efficient.
Another vehicle team, the Edison II, focused on making the car as light as possible to achieve better efficiency. That team is looking for a corporate marriage with a traditional car company to mass market the vehicle, or at least license some of the technology that originated with the contest.
Fagone also introduced Kevin Smith, the leader of the Illuminati Motor Company. Smith spoke briefly about the process. Much of the car was handbuilt by a team that included his wife, and the project dominated his life for more than two years. They hand sculpted the body, and built a metal frame using a wood burning stove to soften the steel.
Smith’s team eventually achieved more than two hundred miles per hour efficiency and expects to earn back even more with existing technologies like regenerative braking. The model that runs now though isn’t quite the family sedan. The gull wing car lacks modern safety features like airbags. Still, it represents a possible future of automobiles. As Fagone describes it, a “retrofuture” since it draws on inspirations from the past.
Fagone, who has previously written about competitive eating, says he didn’t know much about cars before hand. “I’m not really a car guy,” he said. But when it comes to something like Illuminati Motor Works entry, “I’ve had dreams about that car.”