West Philly’s Quest for the Automotive X Prize
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.