In 2007, more than 200 teams set out on an ambitious automotive undertaking. The X Prize Foundation announced it would create a $10-million competition open to anyone who could build a safe, mass-producible car that achieved 100 miles per gallon equivalent. AutoblogGreen followed the competition in real time, but the grueling three-year adventure has now been recounted in fascinating detail by author Jason Fagone in Ingenious, a new book on sale this month.
Fagone follows four of the teams in the competition, chronicling the adventures of these innovators, inventors and tinkerers who rose above their relatively limited automotive experience to achieve incredible results. He recently chatted with us about the book, about the legacy of the X Prize and the state of American innovation itself. Check out our review of Ingenious and our conversation with Fagone below.
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Pete Bigelow: How did you get interested in writing a book about the X Prize?
Jason Fagone: I live in Philadelphia, and in 2010, I read a newspaper story about the West Philly team, a group of high school kids building hybrid cars to win this $10-million efficiency competition. I called and asked if I could come visit them at the garage. The garage is this place straight out of the '50s, old machines and a sign that said, "Shorts and Skirts must be worn knee-length," and yet here they are working on these futuristic cars. They had beaten MIT.
I was fascinated by their effort and wanted to know if they could pull it off. They were little guys with big ideas, and this was 2010, which was a pretty dark time in the country. The big banks had failed, and GM and Chrysler had gone bankrupt. It seemed like all the elites in society had failed. So it was important to go looking for ideas from a broader range of people.
PB: At the beginning, how did you think this was going to turn out?
JF: I went into the project thinking it would be a vindication of electric cars, and in a lot of ways, it was. But along the way, I became a lot more interested in ideas that were a lot more fundamental, ideas like extreme lightness and aerodynamic efficiency.
PB: There's the bigger theme in the book that America has, maybe, lost its collective sense of ambition. You mention, for instance, all the cuts to NASA in the book.
JF: Mark Twain said we are called a nation of inventors, and we are. Whitman wrote poetry about mechanics. What excited these guys about invention was the democracy of it. We have all these innate Promethean powers and we can design a country to unleash them. We've gotten away from that idea. When you think of an inventor today, it's a coder, or maybe it's Elon Musk. That's great, and I like Tesla. But the inventors who have influence in the culture are elites, and the original idea was that inventors could be ordinary people.
The original idea was that inventors could be ordinary people.
PB: So are you more optimistic or more pessimistic about the state of innovation in America after researching the book?
JF: I am more optimistic about America. Watching the teams work on the cars, they had so little and their backs were against the wall in the middle of the Great Recession, and yet they created these visionary objects. People say, well, these teams are so small, they're never going to actually build these cars. But to me, their smallness is the whole point. If they could achieve what they achieved with so few resources, it proves that it's possible, and that we should be expecting and demanding better from the big companies.
PB: And these guys, they do this, even though they have almost nothing to gain, they destroy their finances and put their marriages on the line and face astronomical odds?
JF: It's a horrible deal. There's no question you have to be insane to rearrange your entire life to make a go at one of these X Prizes, which is what the best teams did. Even the teams that win the money, they're using the money to repay the debt they incurred. They aren't rolling in it. Winning the prize enabled them to not go bankrupt. So the drive really comes from somewhere else. It's not about the money. The money is the spark, the fuel comes from the dreams and passions of the people who enter. Peter Diamandis [the chairman of the X Prize] said that it's not about the money, they do it because this is why they're put on the earth. I found that to be true. This gives them an excuse to leverage all their networks, friends and social capital in pursuit of one goal.
Winning the prize enabled them to not go bankrupt.
PB: What was the end result for these guys who had poured so much time and energy into their cars for years?
JF: Their cars have not gone into production. They haven't been bought by a big automaker, which I think was the hope. The hope was that the same thing that happened in the 2004 Space Prize would happen here. Back then, Richard Branson bought the winning space-plane technology and formed Virgin Galactic around it. That prize spawned a whole new industry. But that didn't happen here.
PB: Is that because the auto industry here is slow to adopt changes or resistant to changes?
JF: It's very conservative. They don't like to take huge risks. They don't think they need the kinds of radical changes that the X Prize cars represent. According to the new Obama administration rules, they've got to get to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, which is going to be tough, but they think they can get there on their current path, by adapting old architectures. They're not really rethinking the car from the ground up, like the X Prize teams did.
The auto industry is very conservative. They don't like to take huge risks.
PB: You know, when I first read that these guys were still waiting for someone to buy their technology, I felt bad for some of these guys, and thought that they belonged in the 1950s working in their garages, that time has passed them by. But by the end of the book, I thought that I'm wrong. That a guy like Oliver Kuttner isn't behind, but maybe two decades ahead of his time.
JF: I do think he sees the future very clearly. He sees a world that's getting warmer, and where raw materials are scarcer and cost more money, and where more and more people have less and less money to spend, and he made a car to fit that world.
This isn't how automotive companies make cars. They don't make cars to solve problems. They make cars to make money. Oliver made a car to solve a problem. That's why he matters and that's why the car matters. The Very Light Car (above) is really a provocation. It's a left hook to the jaw. It's a challenge and a prod for us to do better. Because if it really is possible to make safe cars that weigh 1,000 pounds or 1,400 pounds or whatever, and I think it is, then it's insane not to make those cars. Eventually, a fair number of cars are going to look like Oliver's cars, and it's just a question of when, and whether he can keep the flame alive until that day.
PB: So with none of these technologies bought by the automakers, what's the legacy of the automotive X Prize?
JF: The Foundation doesn't talk about it or tweet about it much. I think they see it as a failure, and certainly a lot of observers see it as an irrelevant sideshow. But that's not how I see it. These teams had three years to hit these very difficult efficiency and emissions targets in a real-world way. And they did it! They got there. The cars weren't polished or production-ready or anything like that, but they were an important beginning - a credible version of what affordable efficiency could look like.
PB: Is part of the failure that consumers aren't ready for a radical switch like that?
JF: I get why car buyers are an easily spooked bunch. But we're only that way because we've been trained by automakers that cars have to be or feel a certain way. There's a mutually reinforcing conservatism. A lot of people looked at the X Prize cars and said, well, they look weird, so they're not practical. But I think weird is in the eye of the beholder, and weird changes as the world changes. I think it's weird we go to a gas station and put this flammable liquid into our car, and it's a finite resource that comes from the ground, and every time we burn a gallon of gasoline we put all this carbon into the air.
I get why car buyers are an easily spooked bunch. But we're only that way because we've been trained by automakers.
You see the power of perception. You see it in the Tesla fire story: 194,000 overall car fires per year in the United States, that's not a story because it's so common, but three fires in the Tesla that don't hurt anybody, that's a story.
PB: So back to something you said earlier, you said you were more optimistic about the state of American innovation, but after watching the X Prize, I get the sense you're also frustrated with the pace of it.
JF: When most people think of automotive innovation, they think of the Tesla Model S or self-driving cars or some kind of leap in battery technology, and all of these approaches are worthy and important. But they also kind of assume that the basic plan of the automobile as it exists right now is the best we can do. And an automobile right now is basically a heavy box that we smash through the air by force of cheap energy.
Today's automobile is basically a heavy box that we smash through the air with cheap energy.
Why does every car look the same? Four wheels flush with the body in an aerodynamically suboptimal shape. Part of the reason I loved reporting on the X Prize was that it expanded my consciousness. In particular, the Very Light Car taught me to see cars that were not very light and very aerodynamic as somehow wanting. I really like the quote from Henry Ford: "The most beautiful things in the world are those from which all excess weight has been eliminated." I look around when I'm in traffic now and I just see this gray waste.
PB: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Jason.
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.