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West Philadelphia high school dares to build a 100 mpg car

Can a team of high school students beat out dozens of adult competitors and win $7.5 million by building the “Model T” of the 21st century?
They’re working on it.

Can a team of high school students beat out dozens of adult competitors and win $7.5 million by building the “Model T” of the 21st century?

They’re working on it.

A group of about 15 students from West Philadelphia High School is in the running for the 2010 Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE, a competition to build street-ready vehicles that can average 100 miles per gallon or more.

The West Philly Hybrid X team, a largely after-school project, has two cars among the 22 teams and 27 cars still in the competition. A “knockout” round in mid-June will further narrow the field. The winner will be determined in finals held at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, July 19-30.

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West Philly is the only high school team in the competition, which has been taking places in stages for more than a year. Originally, 111 teams with 136 vehicles entered. Other survivors range from small start-up companies to Tata Motors, the giant automaker in India.

What West Philly has accomplished is really “an amazing story,” says Eric Cahill, senior director of the Automotive X Prize, a project of the X PRIZE Foundation that has held similar competitions to build private spacecraft and decode the human genome.

The auto X PRIZE competition is “extremely rigorous,” Mr. Cahill says. “There’s no child’s play here. These aren’t concept cars. These are expected to be production-capable vehicles.

“This isn’t a college championship. This is really the pros. You’ve got to show us your stuff or you will be eliminated.”

In 1998 West Philly math and science teacher Simon Hauger started an after-school program for students in the automotive program, which includes about 150 of the 900 students at the school. Previous West Philly teams have built or modified a number of vehicles, entering them into national competition such as the alternative vehicle Tour del Sol.

The Automotive X PRIZE presents a new challenge: How to build a safe, reliable car that will get at least 100 mpg on gasoline or its equivalent using other fuels, such as electricity or biodiesel.

In early testing both West Philly cars appear to have achieved the goal.

Vehicles in the Mainstream Class must have four wheels and carry four passengers for at least 200 miles between refuelings. The winner will receive $5 million. For this competition, the West Philly team has adapted a Ford Focus by taking out the gasoline engine and replacing it with an electric motor using lithium-ion batteries. That’s supplemented by a two-cylinder Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine.

The Alternative class requires at least two wheels and a minimum range of 100 miles. For this competition, West Philly bought a build-it-yourself racing-car kit meant to be powered by a Porsche or Corvette engine. Instead, they dropped in an electric motor running on lithium-ion batteries and a Volkswagen engine powered by biodiesel.

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The cars aren’t wimps, built only to maximize miles per gallon. They would more than hold their own on an American highway. The modified Focus generates 140 horsepower and tops out at more than 110 mph. The race car, called the EVX GT, creates 240 horsepower and tremendous torque, with a top speed above 150 mph and a superquick 0-to-60 time of less than five seconds.

“In my opinion, it’s not difficult to get 100 miles per gallon,” says Sekou Kamara, a senior and a team member at West Philly, who plans on opening his own auto mechanic shop someday. The lithium-ion batteries, he explains, are “sort of like what you use in your cellphone. They’re extremely light, and you can get a lot [of power] out of them.”

Sekou and two of his teammates, juniors Azeem Hill and Daniel Moore, spoke to a group of entrepreneurs at a recent conference on business innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.

“What’s great is that we have 15 to 20 students on our team who are not just learning about cars, but they’re learning about how to be marketable in a green economy,” says Kathleen Radebaugh, an English teacher at the high school who serves as a volunteer for the X PRIZE team and accompanied the students to MIT.

She recalls seeing Daniel show up in her class one day “just covered with dust. I said, ‘What are you doing downstairs?’ He was sanding the frame [of a car].”

The team has raised about $400,000 to design, build, and test the two cars, Mr. Hauger says. That includes writing and winning grants, collecting donations, and occasionally making trips to the blood bank for extra funds. Boeing Corporation donated time in its wind tunnel, which helped students refine aerodynamics. Two electrical engineering students from Drexel University also lend a hand.

“We’re operating with a low budget, in a school time frame – it’s not like they’re in the shop the whole day. They’re in there for 45 to 90 minutes until after school,” says Maurice Williams, another adult adviser who traveled to MIT with the students. Their rivals are professionals working full time. “We’re stopping and going all the time. So for us to get this far [in the competition], it’s amazing.”

In the May tests at the Michigan track, the West Philly cars passed standards for 0-to-60 acceleration, 60-to-0 braking, high-speed lane changes, and safety tests, proving that they were road worthy vehicles.

The most efficient car sold by a major manufacturer today is the 2010 Toyota Prius, rated at 50 mpg. “To double that is no easy task,” Cahill says. “Fuel economy hasn’t really changed since the Model T, which got 16 to 22 m.p.g.,” he says. The impact of this competition on the auto industry, he says, could be “huge.”

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West Philly has impressed him. “It’s not just the next generation of technology [that’s needed], it’s the next generation of students and workers,” Cahill says. “We need qualified, skilled people who can innovate and be that next generation that will create new jobs and opportunities in this country with higher salaries so that we can continue to be a leading innovator in the world.” Any team that has made it this far in the X PRIZE competition, he says, “should really be applauded.”

If West Philly wins the prize, the bulk of the money will go toward starting a new automotive-oriented high school in Philadelphia, Hauger says.

Engaging students in projects that they feel passionate about is the key to productive learning, say the adults who work with the West Philly team.

“We’re going to produce a car that gets 100 mpg and is safe and affordable on a budget that is ridiculously small compared with any of the car manufacturers,” Hauger says. “I think that says a lot on several different levels, but for us the most important [lesson] is that children are really valuable and that they have great ideas, and they need to be engaged so that their creativity and problem solving can be expressed and developed. When you do, this is the type of work that you can expect to come out of it.”

In inner-city schools such as West Philly, half of students drop out and as many as 15 percent of those who graduate function at just a 12th-grade level.

“You have to change the approach, and you can change the results,” Hauger says. Schools are “increasing testing; they’re increasing the old-fashioned ways that don’t work. And they don’t get any different results.”

Members of the West Philly team seem to set no boundaries on their possibilities. “We cannot wait to mass-produce these vehicles and have you drive our cars,” Sekou told the MIT audience.

Out in the business world, West Philly has already won one admirer.

At the MIT event, Paul Wilbur, a former Chrysler Corporation executive who is now CEO of Aptera Motors, which is itself competing for the X PRIZE, spoke to the crowd just after the West Philly team.

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“I hope Philly wins, just for the record, OK?” Mr. Wilbur said with a wide smile. “My hat’s off to you guys. You guys are awesome, seriously.”