West Philly’s Quest for the Automotive X Prize

In an excerpt from Jason’s Fagone’s new book, Ingenious, teacher Simon Hauger and his students build hybrid cars and race for $10 million—and a chance to change the city’s school district forever.

Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Photo by Ryan Collerd.

The bell rang at 3 p.m. Kids burst from their second-floor classrooms at the West Philadelphia High School Academy for Automotive and Mechanical Engineering and leapt down the stairs. Most filed past the metal detector onto the street, where a trash bin spilled colorful garbage, but a few stayed behind, making their way into a drafty garage and slapping down their backpacks with purpose. A vaguely fungal smell emanated from racks of motor fluid, tools and spare parts, and a sign straight out of the ’50s read ALL SKIRTS & SHORTS MUST BE WORN KNEE LENGTH. It was February 2010. On a wall, a lime-green banner was emblazoned with a quote from Henry Ford: “Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, brings a state of mind in which nothing is impossible.”

Several students entered a small, brightly lit classroom to the side of the garage and dug into a cache of snacks. Others clustered around Simon Hauger, 40, a spindly white guy with an icy thatch of prematurely gray hair. He stood next to a black sports car. The body was removed for now, sitting off to the side, meaning that the steel frame beneath was visible, along with two separate propulsion technologies: an electric motor and battery pack in the front, and a diesel engine in the back. This was a hybrid vehicle of original design, built by Simon and the kids to travel the energy equivalent of 100 miles on a single gallon of gasoline. If they could get to 100 MPGe (the “e” stands for “equivalent”), they had a chance at winning a $10 million contest for the Automotive X Prize. They called themselves the West Philadelphia Hybrid X Team.

Simon said he wanted to work on the sports car’s turbocharger.

“What’s a turbo?” he asked Diamond Gibson, 17, a native of Liberia.

“A turbo, it uses air,” Diamond said.

“It’s like a fan or something,” said Azeem Hill, a thoughtful junior with freckles and thick glasses.

“If I took the fan that I put in the window in the summer, my box fan, and blew air in, would that push enough air?” Simon asked. “No. That only sucks so much air.”

A turbo, he continued, is basically an air compressor—a tool that converts energy into quick bursts of air. The point is to increase the engine’s efficiency by allowing it to squeeze more air into each piston.

“Now, here’s the hard part,” Simon said. “You need to pay attention. Anytime you compress anything, what happens to its temperature?”

“It rises,” Diamond said.

“Right. It gets hotter. And when things get hot, like in a hot-air balloon, what do they want to do?

“Expand,” said Azeem.

“Expand. So our goal for a turbo is to pump air in. So you’re compressing air. It’s getting hot. You’re fighting yourself, right? You need something that cools it off.”

The kids liked Simon; he had a way of relating abstract concepts to the real world. “The way he teaches,” said senior Jacques Wells, “he could teach algebra to a guinea pig.”

Simon never expected to be working on cars with kids. He wanted to teach math. And in the beginning, that’s what he did. He was young and energetic and full of hope. Then he burned out.

It took a little while. His first year working in the school district was 1994. The year after, he taught math at West Philadelphia High, the red-brick building across the street from the academy. (In the eyes of the Philadelphia School District, the high school and the academy are pieces of the same bureaucratic entity, but really they’re two separate worlds.) That school year, a kid was shot in the hall near the lunchroom directly beneath Simon’s class. Another day, a student returned to school from a juvenile-detention facility, walked into Simon’s class, and started beating on another kid. Simon was 26 and physically fit—he used to run track—but he couldn’t break up the fight. “I mean, this kid was big,” he remembers. “It’s a little unnerving when you grab a student and you try to subdue them and you can’t.”

Simon stuck it out in the school district for 13 more years. He was stubborn. But teaching never got any easier. In 1997, Simon moved across the street to the Auto Academy and continued to teach math and physics. He taught the subjects the way they’ve always been taught—standing at the front of a class, facing rows of kids in desks. He watched kids drop out and get arrested for drug possession. One year he received a letter from a former student who had always been one of his favorites; the kid could sit at his desk and crank through physics problems the way other kids waste zombies in video games. It was postmarked from prison. Prison was boring, the letter said. Could Simon send some physics problems?

The only thing he could feel good about was happening outside the classroom, after school, down in the garage. In 1998, a couple of Simon’s students asked him for help on their science-fair project, an electric go-kart. It was so much fun that the following year, Simon and the kids picked an even more ambitious task, converting a Jeep to electric; later, they converted it to a hybrid. Next they turned a Saturn coupe into an electric car. Simon couldn’t believe how hard the kids were willing to work. These were the same students who couldn’t sit still in their normal classes and regularly failed standardized tests, but give them a dense technical manual and some tools, and they’d spend their Saturdays futzing with transmissions and door panels.

In 2002, the team entered the Saturn in a national fuel-efficiency competition, the Tour de Sol. It was so efficient that one rival claimed it had to be “mathematically impossible,” according to a complaint that MIT filed with the organizers of the Tour de Sol. But the complaint was rejected, and West Philly won the Tour handily.

Then the kids started talking about building a different kind of car. Something hot. The automakers’ “green” cars, especially the Prius, were so drab. Simon’s students coveted speed. They dreamed of doing burnouts in sick machines. They were American teenagers. Couldn’t they build an efficient car they’d actually want to drive?

They ordered a sports-car kit on the Internet. Over a period of six months, using the kit’s steel frame as a template and free online translation tools to make sense of the instructions, which were written in Slovak, Simon and the kids assembled a custom hybrid, the “K-1 Attack.” An electric motor powered the front wheels, and a Volkswagen diesel engine powered the rear wheels; the VW engine could accept “biodiesel” fuel made from vegetable oil. Sharky and super-low to the ground, painted bright yellow, the car looked like one of the $200,000 supercars the kids were always gawking at in magazines—but they’d built it for $15,000. After several years of tweaking, the Attack was getting 60 MPG and accelerating from zero to 60 in six seconds. It took first-place prizes in the 2005 and 2006 Tour de Sol competitions.

In 2008, Simon quit the Philadelphia School District and went to work for a nonprofit that supports innovative programs in urban schools. The nonprofit paid him to run the Hybrid X Team full-time. The change gave him some additional space in which to operate, but he wanted even more. By now, Simon had made friends with a handful of graduate students and professors at the University of Pennsylvania who were interested in transforming urban education. Whenever they got together, Simon and the Penn guys always ended up fantasizing about starting their own school—a place where they could take the latest academic insights into project-based learning and apply them in classrooms of their own design.

This was what excited Simon about the X Prize when he first learned of it and read through the rules. The cars could run on electricity, hydrogen, gasoline, ethanol, steam, or some amazing new fuel as yet unknown, but they had to be “production-capable” and “designed to reach the market”—no concept cars, no science projects that would disappear beneath tarps when the contest was over. Grandma had to be able to drive them. They had to excel at a series of increasingly rigorous tests performed during the spring and summer of 2010 at a NASCAR track in rural Michigan.

In other words, the X Prize didn’t appear to be an über-engineering competition. Yes, West Philly would be competing against teams with vastly more money, particularly Edison2, a team run by a fiery German real estate developer from Virginia, and Aptera Motors, a California start-up with 25 employees. Edison2’s entry, the Very Light Car, weighed so little that you could push it across the floor with just your thumb; Aptera’s 2e was a three-wheeled marvel of sleek white aerospace composite. Both cars represented investments of millions of dollars. Still, West Philly had a shot, because the rules demanded a balance between practicality and performance—a trade-off that was built into the team’s DNA.

The X Prize Foundation promised to give its champions a global stage. If West Philly won the Automotive X Prize, Simon could attract money and support for a new school. He could finally break away from the district. In an important sense, he and his students would be competing for their freedom.

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.”

I didn’t see Simon again until two years later, in May 2012. I pulled into the Philadelphia Navy Yard one morning. The building I’d been told to look for, an old Victorian painted bone white, was next to the water, with a view of ships in the harbor. I knew I was in the right place when I saw a box that read MITER SAW WITH LASER next to a wicker chair on the front porch.

I walked through the door of a sunroom. A poster on the wall said:

We will be known as . . .

“Hey, how’s it goin’?” Simon said, extending his hand. “I thought one of the kids could give you a tour.”

This place, the Sustainability Workshop, was the closest Simon had ever come to running his own school. Late in the previous year, he’d convinced the Philadelphia School District to let him design a project-based curriculum for a handful of seniors. Twenty-eight kids from three high schools signed up. Instead of attending their usual classes, they were now spending their days here at the Navy Yard.

Anthony Tran, an 18-year-old in glasses, shorts and high-tops, offered to be my tour guide. He was soon joined by another volunteer, Rasheed Bonds, 17. As Anthony and Rasheed walked me through a series of high-ceilinged rooms flooded with natural light, they described the way the school operates. Each week they have a “deliverable,” something concrete that they and their teachers agree is due on Friday, like a PowerPoint on LED lightbulbs, or a business plan for marketing electric go-karts. They track their own progress. There are no classes to speak of, and no classrooms. Whenever a group of students begin a project, they choose a room. The students move freely, carrying Google Chromebooks.

After the tour, Simon and I drove to a nearby coffee shop. “This is my best year professionally ever,” he said. “It’s worked better than we imagined. It’s kind of like building a car. You know there are going to be major problems. And we haven’t had any major problems. And maybe it’s because we’ve been prototyping and testing all this time.” I asked him how he felt about the X Prize, looking back. He admitted that if he had it to do over again, he would have designed the cars differently: “But so would everybody else in the competition.” In the end, it didn’t matter that West Philly fell short of the finals. They still beat 90 other teams, including one from Cornell University.

“They took us seriously,” Simon said. “We’re tinkerers!” He laughed. “And they gave us a venue to a world stage.”

The experience hardly scared West Philly away from competition. In 2011, the team entered a race for alternative-energy vehicles called the Green Grand Prix, in Watkins Glen, New York. More than two dozen teams brought cars to Watkins Glen. West Philly drove its GT sports car to first place and successfully defended the title in 2012.

Earlier this year, I got word that Simon had convinced both the school district and the School Reform Commission to let him scale up the Sustainability Workshop from a pilot program to a full-fledged district institution. The plan was to move from the Navy Yard into a building in West Philly. In September, 92 students began classes under Simon’s direction at the Workshop School. In addition to regular coursework, each student selects a “career concentration”: pre-engineering, automotive technology or auto-body technology. Simon is finally, at long last, running his own school.

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