The ride began a week ago when we arrived at Michigan International Speedway for the first track event for the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE competition on Sunday April 25. The culmination of more than two years of work was finally going to be tested. We had no idea what we were in for.
Monday was something like a bad proctology exam. A retired head of engineering from Chrysler who developed the Dodge Viper began the interrogation. His third question was “what torque spec plan did you use for the vehicle?” I responded “the German one” to which he responded with a puzzled look, “what is that?” I replied “all the bolts are gutten-tight”. With no expression and a flat tone, he replied “funny”. At that point I knew it was going to be a long week. After finding several loose bolts, we had to produce a real torque-spec plan and then demonstrate that every bolt was tightened to that torque. And that was the easy part - it went downhill from there.
Tuesday began at 7AM in the garage and we left at 9:30 PM. We sat down for dinner around 10 PM – Ann looked like she might fall asleep while we waited for our food. Mark recalled the ridiculousness of the day while Keith and Jerry lamented that they had a few more hours of programming to do on the control system that night. I’m not sure if they slept at all. I noticed that my hands looked as if I had been playing with barbed-wire. What a day.
However, by early Wednesday morning I felt the joy of coming out the other side of an abusive relationship. Both cars completed the first stage and received their little green sticker which were required to move to the next stage – dynamic testing. You would have thought we won the lottery when the sticker hit the windshield. The cars we had dreamed of almost three years ago were given their first official approval. It’s hard to describe that feeling.
The dynamic testing was the second of three required events to “pass” this stage of the competition. It consisted of a 0 to 60 acceleration test, a 60 to 0 braking test, and a high speed lane change test that were all conducted by Consumer Reports. The GT, driven by Mark, sailed through all three events and by the end of the day qualified for the third and final requirement – the durability test. The GT was running so well, Mark signed up for the two optional events – emissions and efficiency. The Focus was another story. I ran the Focus in the 0 to 60 test on electric only. The Harley engine was not working properly. I topped out at 58 mph in my third run and then the electric drive system turned off. We searched for the cause for hours – could it be the motor, the controller, the battery pack? We spent all afternoon Wednesday working on the Harley engine and trying to resolve our electric propulsion problems. We charged the battery pack (which is another story in itself) and first thing Thursday took another shot with the Focus. The electric drive clicked off again. It looked like two years of work was about to come to an end. Ann wanted to vomit. I prayed and worked as hard as I could. It appeared that our ride was over. We took the Focus back to the garage and fought the Harley engine. Keith reprogrammed the control system just so we could use the Harley for the acceleration test. I prayed more. Ann said she was considering getting Bat-Mitzvahed. Just as we got the Harley started it began to rain. You can’t do a braking test in the rain – you can’t do a high speed lane change in the rain. All the teams who had run those tests (about half by this point) struggled to meet the requirements on dry pavement. I couldn’t believe it was raining – and the Harley was barely running.
And then something happened. The rollercoaster began to ascend from the depths. The rain stopped. The pavement dried up in minutes. And the Harley decided to behave – and Keith’s programming actually allowed me to drive on both electric and Harley. We hurried over to the track and took our first run. It was 4PM and Consumer Reports was scheduled to leave at 5PM. They dropped the green flag – I started off slowly (another long story) and then punched it. The Harley coupled to the transmission and launched me to 70 MPH in what felt like seconds. I flew past the braking skid pad at 67 mph and stopped in the required distance. We passed the braking test! I thought we had passed the acceleration test but found out that the slow start kept me from making the requirement. So we tried again – but then the Harley died. The clock was ticking. Once again, the coaster was on its way back down. I called my mother and told her to pray. We fought the Harley again and finally got it started. I knew this was the last run. As the green flag dropped, I eased off the line, and then floored it. As I pulled through third gear, the car continued to accelerate. I decided not to shift – the car was going to reach 60 or the engine was going to blow. One way or the other, this was it. I flew across the finish line with the engine blaring at over 6000 rpms. The Focus actually accelerated faster than the GT. We passed the acceleration test and hurried over to the lane change. It was tricky, but we did it. The rollercoaster was soaring high again.
The Focus was scheduled for the 40 mile durability run at the track’s old Formula 1 course for Friday at 2PM. It was the last event of the week. Five teams showed up to run it. Five other teams didn’t even make it to this point. We spent all morning getting the Harley working properly and charging the batteries. The Harley was finally working and the batteries were charged. The Focus was running at its best. We arrived at 2PM full of confidence.
After a short drivers’ meeting, we lined up. We went to start the Harley, but it just wouldn’t start. So I decided to watch the battery pack closely and run on electric only. After 10 miles I knew the car wouldn’t make it on electric only. I pulled into the pit and we fought the Harley. After a long battle, it relented and started. It wasn’t running well, but with its assistance, I was sure we could make the laps in the allotted time. Two laps in with the Harley, I smelled smoke. As I came through the hairpin turn, the car lost all power. I knew something bad had happened. Fortunately there was a flag station next to the corner. I pulled in and immediately one of the fire trucks pulled up next to me. I opened the hood and indeed, there was a fire. Two years of work and all the hype, literally going up in flames. I thought I was going to vomit. The fireman used his canister and put out the fire. I was sure the rollercoaster had hit its lowest point already – I was wrong. Twelve years of building cars and this was one of the best we’ve ever built. How could this happen?
The good news was that we discovered that our disaster wasn’t as bad as we thought and that it had been caused by a stupid mistake. Oil leaked and caught fire. The damage was minimal. We filed an appeal and the judges accepted it. Somehow, miraculously, we’ll be back in June – with both cars.
With the absence of Hauger, Mark, lil Mark, Keith, and Jerry P, the downstairs shops are a little lonely. There is this great space in the middle of Ron's shop. Sometimes you see Daniel Moore just walking around in circles where the GTM used to lay. It is a little sad.
Trust me though when I say that we have enough work to keep us from any nostalgia, that is an understatement. And when I say that we had enough drama in our lives over the past couple days to sell out Broadway, that is an understatement.
Yet, the cars are working. The West Philly Hybrid X Team is doing very well in Michigan. The GTM passed the speed test. Tomorrow, Simon and company will try the Ford Focus again. Ann is keeping everyone updated with emails and tweets in the middle of all her runs to the hardware store and auto shops. I would love to see Edison 2's four cars at the Speedway. They sound amazing. Four cars! What an incredible accomplishment.
The thing is, the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize is accomplishing everything they set out to do. You have engineers, mechanics, thinkers, businessmen and women coming together to talk cars. This competition sparked this need for innovative hybrid technology and powerful business plans. Many people are taking notice. This competition has done so much for this team that it doesn't seem real at times. Three students will speak on Friday at MIT about the future of sustainability energy. Ten days ago, another four students were part of a panel at Saint Joseph's University discussing the educational benefits a CTE curriculum fosters at an urban school. Boeing Wind Tunnel opened its doors for us to test the areodynamics of our cars. We truly are fortunate to work with such wonderful and accomplished companies and universities as if it is the norm now.
I am very excited to take three students, Azeem, Daniel, and Sekou to Boston with Maurice Williams. I cannot imagine the electricity on that campus. As a former rower at Saint Joseph's, the women's team was always jealous of the men's team when they went to Boston to row on the Charles River. I have never seen the Charles River. I can imagine its a beautiful river.
Keep updated with the mechanics and engineers in Michigan through out twitter account. Make sure to follow the students in Boston as the present our essential question, "How do you educate urban youth for the green economy?"
Two answers: compete in nationally prestigious competitions and implement a strong CTE curriculum.
Ride or Die
Michael Glover is a first-year-team member, and a junior at the West Philadelphia Auto Academy. Ann and I can’t figure him out.
He has a C or D, in pretty much all of his classes, including shop. Recently, Mr. Preiss caught him cutting shop not once, but twice. I guess the shop doesn’t have what the corner store does.
He falls asleep in my class about once a week. I have his mother’s cell phone number saved in my phone, and I recently sent her a picture message of her son sleeping in my class. It was probably one of the greatest picture texts I have ever sent.
When interim reports went out, Michael was in shock to see such low grades. He couldn’t understand why the majority of his grades were low D’s, and in my case an F.
“Michael, you never do your homework. You never have your books for class. Sometimes you don’t even have a pen.. The only major assignment you completed was the four stanza poem with metaphors. And you didn’t even write four stanzas. And you wrote similes!”
Yet, Michael does exceptionally well after 3:04 p.m.
He is an amazing football player. He was a great asset to the team this past fall as an offensive linebacker. He did very well in the field and worked very hard in practice. He loves football so much. He cannot wait for the football summer camp in July.
When football season was over, he joined the West Philly Hybrid X Team. He was simply looking for something to do after school. Many of the students on the team fall into this category. They enjoy automotive and working with the teachers and teammates. Most of the students don’t want to go home right after school.
Yet, Michael has a tremendous family base. His mother is very supportive and is in constant communication with his teachers. I know. I talk to her about once or twice a week. His father stops by the shop to check in on Michael. Sometimes Michael doesn’t do a great job of letting his parents know his schedule when we are in the shop late into the evening. When that happens, they come looking for him.
Michael may be one of the only students on the team who realizes all the exceptional opportunities provided for him. He said in an interview that he joined the team because he thought this could be a way to get into college. He also said that he is pretty much as famous as all the influential people the team has met, and doesn’t see the big deal with them coming to our shop.
He thrives on Simon’s lectures on aerodynamics. He loves the science behind the cars and is working very closely with a Penn student volunteer on researching ways to make the cars more aerodynamic. He is the one who found a more aerodynamic windshield that the team is looking to buy for the cars. The same day he left for the corner store during sixth period, he stayed with Edgar (the Penn engineering student) until five o’clock to research a contraption he could build to put on top of the GT to lower wind resistance.
When the gear heads on the team stumble over the name of a car part, a specific about the hybrid technology, or the effect of rolling resistance on fuel economy, Michael has the answer. Without fail. Every time it happens – which is frequently – we’re floored. This is why Ron Preiss says Michael should major in EV.
Ann and I spent an entire evening about two weeks ago talking about Michael Glover and his idiosyncrasies, and we still can’t figure him out. He is the reason why high school curriculum should be restructured, the school hours reworked, the menu in the cafeteria overhauled and football mini camps should be scheduled throughout the school year. We also need to trust in our students’ abilities some more.
Last thought: I was so frustrated with Michael one day that I called my mother and had her speak to him. Whenever a student is giving me a particular hard time, I call my mom in the middle of class and have her speak to him/her. Last year it was Rameak Taylor. This is year, it is Michael Glover. My mother is a force. She yells more than I do. She works at a middle school in Maryland. Her lunch is during my fourth period with Michael. Convenient. Even after their conversation, Michael still didn’t do his homework that night and didn’t bring his book to class.
We are stumped.
This was Ann's away message five minutes ago.
Ann's new status message - WE PASSED Technical Deliverable 2. Next 500 miles and TD3! 10:03 PM
Ride or Die.
At 4:15 p.m., I was completely brain-dead while Hauger explained the force, pull, gravity, weight, aerodynamics, wind resistance, rain drop, triangle, slippery tires, panels, cardboard, duct tape, and something else I cannot remember about the two cars. We pretty much want our cars to be as close to zero drag as possible. Right now, the Ford Focus is a 0.35. The less drag, the more fuel efficiency. I bet I was dragging at about a 12409504932948.0987656 towards the end of today.
Today was our first day back at school. Seriously, I am not complaining. I really do enjoy 150 teenagers in my life at 7:45 in the morning. I also enjoyed the additional three inches of snow interrupting first, second, and third period. Crazy enough, work was accomplished today. The sophomores and juniors finished their interim essays. I saw about 50% of my senior class during eighth period and E.B. White was gracious enough to grace the classroom with a stream-of-consciousness writing style.
The team assembled for its Tuesday meeting run by Hauger and his excessive need for aerodynamics. It is interesting to compare how the students perform during the day versus the afternoon setting. Maybe they are more active in the afternoon, because Ann provides pretzels and clementines. Maybe they are more active, because Ann describes 14 chances for them to public speak, meet fascinating people, and travel outside of West Philly during the school day. February, March, and April are very busy and important months for the team. The mechanical aspects of the cars have to be near perfection in order to participate in the next round in June. Within the next two weeks, the students will speak to Mayor Nutter, appear on a Gates Foundation video, seek tutoring from Penn engineers, and partake in the documentary filming.
It is a very challenging schedule. We wouldn't be doing any of this if we didn't want a challenging schedule. Sometimes mistakes get in our way, and we run into situations that may appear out of our control. If ever there was a time for our students to realize that nothing else matters but taking care of yourself and the education you receive, it is now. We need the students to have zero drag.
If you can, email us some of your thought on how we can make our cars more like a "raindrop." How can we make sure that we are achieving the best aerodynamics we can safely achieve in the cars?
Also, it cannot snow ever again.
Ride or Die.