Building the 100+ MPG Car:
Electric co-op member works to shape the future of the automobile industry.
Illuminati Motor Works, (front l-r): Thomas Pasko, Josh Spradlin, (back l-r): Steve Becker, volunteer David Hecht, Kevin Smith, and Kevin Hecht.
The drive for a sustainable future, one unencumbered by dependence on foreign oil, and the lure of a $10 million prize, has Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative member Kevin Smith, of Divernon, and his team vying for first place in an international race to build the world’s first 100-mile-per-gallon production vehicle.
Over the course of two years, the team, Illuminati Motor Works (IMW), plans to build a hybrid car from the ground up and race cross-country in the Automotive X PRIZE (AXP) competition. With more than 40 teams across the globe participating, the competition is steep. The contest requirements are stringent and no current vehicles in production meet them, nor do many of the well-funded AXP competitors’ cars. Borrowing from the Touchstone Energy cooperatives’ principles of innovation and cooperation, IMW thinks they have what it takes to win.
Team IMW includes engineers, an automotive technician, a graphic artist and car enthusiasts with decades of experience. While some members have built motorcycles, as well as alternative fuel vehicles, they face new challenges with the current competition. According to Kevin Hecht, one of the team’s engineers, “It’s all the challenges that anyone faces if they try to start a new car company from scratch. In the United States, that has proven to be very hard to do.”
That’s an understatement. Existing car companies have yet to meet a demand for an attractive, extremely fuel-efficient (at least 100 mpg), four-wheel vehicle, with a low carbon footprint that’s capable of seating four tall men, offers a decent amount of trunk space, and is priced realistically for today’s car market. AXP requires this of all contenders, which is why most teams have entered into the lesser “alternative class” and hope to win a smaller prize. IMW are amongst a minority of teams confident they can meet all of the “mainstream class” goals to earn the $10 million prize.
Flexibility is important, as the U.S. is currently considering fuel sources for the future of transportation. Team leader Kevin Smith has experience building solar, natural gas and hybrid electric vehicles. He knows the danger of designing a product that’s too specialized for the evolving market. In 1996 he helped convert a Taurus to a natural gas vehicle when Ford Motor Company hosted the Future Car Challenge in Detroit, Mich.
At the time, natural gas seemed to be the future fuel for daily drivers. It didn’t come to pass. Natural gas vehicles have become a large part of mass transit, but are only now being marketed for consumer use in metropolitan areas of California and New York. Smith doesn’t want to create another vehicle doomed to extinction. “Our vehicle design allows for the use of multiple fuel sources including: diesel, biodiesel, gas, electricity, ethanol, natural gas, propane and others. More options help to stabilize our future energy infrastructure,” Smith explains.
Not only must the team design and build the car, they have to draft plans to show it can be put into production. The X PRIZE Foundation is not interested in expensive one-of-a-kind concept vehicles that will only be seen in car shows. All teams must demonstrate how their car can be affordably mass-produced. The winning car must be commercially viable, which creates a huge challenge for Steve Becker, the artist of the group. In order to meet the efficiency goals, the size and shape of the vehicle are severely limited. He’s charged with making it look attractive to consumers.
Sparks fly as Josh Spradlin and David Hecht recycle parts from a donor car.
“If it looks like a clown car, only clowns will buy it,” says Becker. “It has to have curb appeal. People will walk by the car on the sidewalk and say ‘I want one of those.’ It has to be marketable. It has to be something someone is going to want to buy. A lot of people seem to think that if you make a car that gets 100-miles-per-gallon, people will just rush right to the dealerships and buy them. The fact is, they won’t.” Current purchasing trends show average consumer is more concerned with appearance and usefulness than fuel economy alone.
Team member Josh Spradlin agrees. The most efficient hybrid on the market, the Toyota Prius, doesn’t look tough enough to make men want to buy it. He also points out that while most guys want a sports car, they have to compromise in order to make their wives happy.
Spradlin says, “We have to make it look family oriented, because people look at a Dodge Charger and think, ‘oh that’s cool, I want one,’ but you also can fit three kids in the back.” If their car looks sporty but offers space for child car seats, it will have a marketing advantage over many of its competitors.
When asked why they decided to face such challenges, their answers spoke overwhelmingly of environmental conscience and camaraderie. “It dawned on me clear back when I was working on the GM electric vehicle program that more efficiency was both possible and necessary,” Hecht explains.
Hecht believes farmers will be creating the future alternative fuels, but he cautions that a combination of innovation in fuel crops and increased fuel-efficiency is important if the nation’s farmers are going to be able to continue to produce both food and biofuels. “If we build a car like this and we run on ethanol, which is a possibility, we don’t have to choose between eating and driving. If we add efficiency by creating vehicles that go so much farther on a given amount of fuel, then you have both. You can still eat and power your vehicle and continue your life as you’ve become accustomed to,” he says.
Thomas Pasko, the team’s automotive technician, says the U.S. automotive industry must move to alternative fuels “because fossil fuels cannot continue to be the main thrust of how we get around.” He’d like to see the country be less dependent on foreign oil and he wants to help bring the U.S. back to the forefront in innovative technology. He also cites his friendship with Smith as the primary reason why he’s involved. “Kevin has a great ability for defining problems and then coming up with solutions, but we also work well together on that kind of thing. When we are talking and figuring out a solution to a problem, that brings me a lot of pleasure,” he says.
The cooperative effort doesn’t end with these five team members. Thirteen-year-old David Hecht volunteers his time on the project because he says, “It’s a lot of fun and it will help the environment a lot.”
Recently, the team posted a call for help on their Web site, which has seen an increase in traffic since the team was featured in the January 2008 issue of WIRED Magazine. They encouraged visitors to view sustainability as a personal responsibility and to help any of the teams striving for the Automotive X PRIZE. Unlike most contenders, IMW started without sponsors, in a rural workshop in central Illinois. The five-man team knew that finances would be just one of the challenges facing them, but had faith that a large cooperative effort would help them reach their goal. Their site asks visitors to consider donating services to their cause. The response has been remarkable. Professionals nationwide, including a patent attorney and a statistical mathematics professor, have volunteered. The time has come for eco-friendly transportation and people are excited to do their part to bring about an innovative solution.
For more information about the Automotive X PRIZE, or to see how you can help, go to: Auto.XPRIZE.org and IlluminatiMotorWorks.org.
© 2008 Illinois Country Living Magazine.