Car builders race for a $10 million prize

Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America. Jason Fagone. Crown. 386 pages. $26.99.
Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America. Jason Fagone. Crown. 386 pages. $26.99.

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.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">STONE MATTRESS: </span>Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.


    Past looms large in new stories from Margaret Atwood

    In Margaret Atwood’s new collection, the past looms large for aging protagonists, but sympathy and regret abound, too.

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran, which I love, love, loved. It’s a mystery set in New Orleans shortly after the storm and solved by girl detective, Claire DeWitt, who applies her special method of detection which is pretty much based on yoga and Buddhism combined with the altered mind states of drugs, drink, dreams and growing up in Brooklyn.”

 <span class="cutline_leadin">WHAT STAYS IN VEGAS:</span> The World of Personal Data — Lifeblood of Big Business C — and the End of Privacy as We Know It. Adam Tanner. PublicAffairs. 316 pages. $27.99.


    ‘What Stays in Vegas’ examines data packaging and the end of privacy

    Journalist explains how data packaging makes American companies the biggest threat to privacy.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category