As the field narrows and we get closer to the knock-out round, I imagine all the teams are hearing this question more frequently. I also imagine that the answers vary as widely as the teams who are entered in this $10 million competition.
I started thinking seriously about this question over a year ago. Ann had just called me – she was having a melt-down, “What are we doing in this competition? We are in way over our heads.” I knew how to respond because I had struggled with the same feelings several times myself.
We are not a car company. The West Philly Hybrid X Team is made up of educators and students. We entered the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE not to launch a new car company, but to create an unparalleled educational experience for our students. We wanted to demonstrate the value of engaging kids – their creativity and their intellect – in solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. We wanted to be a part of the collective push to revolutionize the automotive industry.
A year ago I realized, by that definition, we had already won. We engaged an amazing group of students to develop our vision about hybrid cars and how to improve urban air quality. We developed a business plan to manufacture our cars in our community and provide pipelines from high school to the good manufacturing jobs that Philadelphia needs. But more than that, we were being taken seriously. The local and national media were treating us as true contenders. Our students received unprecedented opportunities to speak at universities, national conferences and in the community. Sponsors and donors committed to support our vision and volunteers and students continued to pour tremendous time and effort into this project.
We have already won.
Most of you probably still want to know what we will do if we take first place and receive the millions. Well, stranger things have happened. And since I do believe in Divine intervention, I would never rule that out. However, the reality is that we are competing against teams of engineers, well-funded start-up companies and major universities.
Our goal is to ride the rollercoaster and show the world what an urban high school team is capable of. And when that ride comes to its end, we will begin work on our next dream – to start a school. We’ve learned a bit about hybrid vehicles over the past twelve years. We’ve learned a lot more about how to educate youth. The world is in need of 100 MPGe vehicles. Philadelphia needs new manufacturing jobs.
But, most of all, America is in desperate need of dynamic schools that work. We can’t wait to bring our winning team to that challenge.
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.
I’ve been thinking about the Kentucky Derby all day. I’ve watched almost every Derby since I was a kid. I love the drama. I love hearing from the veteran trainers, the upstart owners and the jockeys. This year there are 25 regular folks who chipped in and bought Noble’s Promise. They’ll be in the owner’s box watching just like the wealthy folks who generally own contenders in the Sport of Kings. It’s a great story.
Watching the Derby makes me think about the race we’re in: The Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize.
There are 20 horses entered in today’s Kentucky Derby and the purse for the race is $2 million. This amount is divided among the top finishers using a formula that allots 60% to the winner, 20% to the second 10% to third, 7.5% to fourth and 2.5% for fifth. This means the horse that wins the Derby takes home $1.2 million.
The purse for the X PRIZE is bigger. $10 million is up for grabs. That amount is divided between three divisions: $5 million for Mainstream vehicles and $2.5 million for each of the two alternative divisions. We have cars in two of the three divisions. Unlike the Derby, there’s no prize for anything but the first place finisher in each Division. This is an amazing scenario for anyone who likes high stakes competition.
The West Philly Hybrid X Team has cars in two of the three divisions. That means we are competing against fewer contestants for way bigger stakes than those entered in the Kentucky Derby. But, like every horse that sets foot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs, we’ve already made the big time.
We’ve qualified and we’ll be on the track at the Michigan International Speedway. The world is watching us as we take the next step in our remarkable and ridiculous advdenture. I just can’t wait to see the morning line.
Simon has been praying. All the time. I was nearly sick. Only Keith uttered the words out loud although at some point today we all thought it. “At least we’ll still have one car in the X Prize.” When we came to Michigan for the Shakedown Stage of the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE, we thought that the Focus was in significantly better shape than the GT. We were wrong.
By Tuesday both the Focus and the GT passed the technical inspection and it was time to move to dynamic testing. Big Mark took the GT to the track and quickly passed the acceleration, braking and lane change tests. It looked easy.
Then we brought the Ford over. The object of the acceleration and braking test is to accelerate from 0 to 60 in under 15 seconds, then brake from 60 to 0 in less than 170 feet. Simon had the Focus in all electric mode. He got really close on his first two runs at 55 MPH and then 58 MPH. But he couldn’t hit 60 MPH. Something was seriously wrong. Simon’s mother started praying.
We didn’t panic. We took the Ford back to the shop, worked into the night and were prepared to try it again in the morning. It didn’t work. Was there a bad cell in the battery pack? Was there a software problem? Noon came and went with no answer. We charged the car and tried again without success. Our only alternative was to run the car on the Harley to get our acceleration. That’s right: run a 3500 lb car on a Harley-Davidson engine to pass our acceleration test.
Just one problem. The Harley wouldn’t start. After what seemed like hours of intensive programming Keith and Jerry got the Harley running, but every time Simon touched the throttle, the engine shut-off. Again and again. Then it started to rain. Big Mark came back from running the durability test on the GT and worked his magic on the throttle. We were ready to go back to the track and try again.
In the meantime, Consumer Reports, which was responsible for running the dynamic tests, had left the track. When we didn’t show up on the track in the afternoon, they packed their bags and were headed out. We were the only car left to go. Fortunately, they unpacked and came back for us. First go was not good. Second time we had 0 to 60 in 16.9 seconds. We hit the braking zone at 67 mph and stopped in less than 170 feet. Half our battle – braking was okay, but we had to try again for acceleration. Third time we did it in 16.2 seconds. Then the Harley stalled out. OMG.
I waited at the finish line for what seemed like a week as the rest of the Team worked on the Focus at the other end of the straightaway. The sun came out but there was no rainbow. Finally, Simon ran the Focus with the Harley rumbling, the electric motor humming, the magnetic clutch ringing and hit the acceleration mark. I was no longer sick.
Last hurdle for the day was the lane change. This accident avoidance maneuver has to be performed at 45 mph and simulates switching 2 lanes of traffic. There are cones set up to mark lanes. Hit a cone and you’ve failed. Come in at less than 45 mph and you’ve failed. Time and again Simon came through. Wasn’t fast enough. Hit a cone. Hit another cone. Wasn’t fast enough. Ten or eleven must have been the charm, because he nailed it. In true Hauger fashion we even had 40 minutes to spare.
What a day. We have one more day of testing tomorrow. When we nail those tests all we have to do is drive home and get two cars and about 15 kids ready to come back to the Michigan International Speedway in June for the next stage of this $10 million rollercoaster ride. OMG.