The dream of the super-efficient car has resided in our cultural consciousness for decades, but its image has been fought over by two camps, each with their own different visions of the future. Is the efficient car a necessity for our upcoming Mad Max post-fuel wasteland society or an inevitable stepping stone toward a gleamingly green scientific utopia, where we zip around a healthy planet in vehicles that look like they were designed by Steve Jobs?
Both philosophies — and others — are at work in Ingenious, a new book by journalist Jason Fagone that offers an immersive account of the automotive challenge issued by the X Prize Foundation in 2007. The gauntlet thrown down was a weighty one: The first team that could design a mass-producible car that could make it 100 miles on a single gallon of gas (or its energy equivalent in an alternate fuel) would take home a cool $10 million. This was an exercise in populism as much as futurism: teams of rogue inventors and mechanics were as encouraged to compete as car companies and scientific firms.
Fagone focuses on the rogues, specifically four teams from across the country: a husband and wife duo working out of an Illinois barn; a merry band of engineers from Virginia; a group of west Philadelphia high school kids whose redemptive story is ripe for film optioning; and a slick Southern California start-up with venture capital to burn. Fagone’s reporting is as personal as it is scientific, and he spends as much time getting a sense for the inventors as for the invented. His focus, we come to see, is less about the relationship between piston and crankshaft and more about father and son, teacher and teen, rival and rival. Hope springs eternal here, and can, we see, fuel a car for quite a ways.
He writes of one of the competitors: “Kevin really believes all this stuff about the value of mavericks and the power of crazy ideas and the Prize as a level playing field. He believes that nothing is impossible when you’re building a car because all is engineering, and engineering, in the words of historian Henry Petroski, is merely ‘the rearrangement of what is.’ ”
The myriad design philosophies of the teams chasing the prize, from such different backgrounds, leads to a gestalt that looks something like the Pod Races from Star Wars: Episode I. But although there is plenty here to interest those who spend their weekends tinkering under their car in an oil-stained driveway, the book is at its core a story of Lindbergh-esque triumph of man over machine. Or maybe man astride machine? (Another echo of Lindbergh was the designers’ battle against the weight of their machines. “Lightness!” Fagone writes. “A cardinal virtue of human vehicles going back to the covered wagon, the chariot, the dogsled.”)
Fagone is as adept in the language of the garage as he is in the inspirational argot of the Ted Talk, referring to “human potential” with an eye toward market upheaval and the evolution of society. Perhaps that’s a bit much, but one thing is clear: Our love affair with the internal combustion engine, like all affairs, must come to an end. When we ride into the sunset of the next automotive age, hopefully we’ll make it all the way on one tank.
Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.