West Philly’s Quest for the Automotive X Prize
To increase their chances of winning, they decided to build two cars, not one. The first was the black sports car, which they called the GT. The second was a four-door sedan adapted from a 2008 Ford Focus. Simon and the kids had removed the stock engine and designed another original hybrid system to replace it. The system was a patchwork of unusual components: an electric motor, a Harley Davidson V-twin motorcycle engine, a magnetic clutch meant to be a spare part for a farm tractor. It all added up to a plug-in hybrid vehicle similar to the Chevy Volt, only cheaper. A Drexel PhD student named Keith Sevcik helped the team write the computer code to glue all the parts together and make sure the brawn of the Harley didn’t tear everything to shreds.
As West Philly progressed through the stages of the X Prize competition, though, the Focus gave them fits. In April, during the first on-track stage—“Shakedown”—at Michigan International Speedway, the car failed its first two attempts at the acceleration test, which required a car to go from zero to 60 in 15 seconds. Simon used both the electric motor and the Harley to try to reach 60 miles per hour, and barely qualified after several attempts.
Shakedown wasn’t an elimination round, so Prize officials allowed West Philly to continue to the semifinal “Knockout” stage. The team returned to the Speedway in June. But now, at Knockout, there was no more leniency. Simon had to make the Focus work. Specifically, he needed to pilot the car through three separate “driving cycles”—tests that mimicked different driving conditions and measured fuel economy in each. The toughest of these would be the highway cycle—45 laps, 90 miles, with a stop every 10 miles.
The day of the highway test, Simon settled into the driver’s seat of the Focus wearing jeans, a blue pullover, and a crash helmet that, according to his wife, Cindy, who was there with their two young boys, made him look like Speed Racer’s geekier older brother. The West Philly students pushed him onto the oval. Simon lined up with several other cars, including the Edison2 Very Light Car, the Aptera 2e, and a three-wheeled electric car called the ZAP Alias. The driver of the Alias was IndyCar champion Al Unser Jr., who was also serving as that team’s celebrity spokesperson.
Simon started the test in electric mode and passed the Very Light Car, which seemed to be overheating and pitted right away.
After the fourth or fifth lap, Simon decided it was time. In third gear, going about 45, he pressed the button to engage the Harley.
Meanwhile, over in Pit Lane, Keith Sevcik, the computer programmer, thought he heard a familiar noise. “Is that the Harley?”
“Wow, that is strange,” said a journalist from Automobile magazine. “I’ve never heard a sound like that coming from a car before.”
Keith grinned and slapped the wall with his hand. “It’s working.” He darted 20 yards down the track, screaming: “It’s working! It’s working!”
Inside the Focus, Simon noticed two things at about the same time.
One: The Harley runs better when I go faster.
Two: That’s Al Unser Jr. up ahead of me.
In fourth gear, he let out the throttle and maneuvered to the high side of the oval, creeping up on Al Jr.’s ZAP until he was pretty sure he could be seen in the rearview mirror. Then, at 58 MPG, the former high-school math teacher passed the two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.
As Simon accumulated laps, the Harley gave him no problems, except that its vibration heightened his need to go to the bathroom. After the 45th lap, he pulled onto the grass on the far side of the finish line. The kids rushed to greet him as he emerged from the car, his cheeks shiny with sweat. Keith jumped up to hug him. “Ha-ha-ha!” Simon said.
That night, Simon and Keith ran the numbers. They knew roughly how much energy they’d used and how far they’d traveled. They came up with 59 MPGe for the GT and 64 for the Focus—both short of the 67 MPGe cut-off to advance in the competition. Simon sent an email to Ann Cohen, the team’s manager: We’re close and there are LOTS of variables but if you’ve been waiting to pray, now is the time.
The next morning at the track, an X Prize official approached Simon and handed him a blue binder. The final results read:
GT: 53.7 MPGe
Focus: 63.5 MPGe
So Simon’s math was roughly correct. The GT wasn’t close to 67 MPGe. The Focus was achingly short—about five percent away.
Simon broke the news to the adults and the kids. “We’re proud of you,” he said. “Our work was outstanding.” Two of the team’s adults started to cry. Senior Jacques Wells took a long walk along Pit Lane and returned defiant: “We’re still one of the greatest competition teams in the industry,” he said. “Listen, if we had half of Aptera’s budget … Come on now.”
Ann Cohen jumped in. “We went out on this track and got 65 miles to the gallon in a frickin’ 3,000-pound Ford Focus,” she said. “Come on. That’s unbelievable.”