There was less hustle and bustle at the Michigan International Speedway on Thursday, as many teams had completed the inspection and testing, and several others were offsite for an Automotive X Prize press conference. But there was plenty of trackside drama.
I manned the accident avoidance test, a safety evaluation that has the cars coasting at 45 mph (or higher), changing lanes to the left and then back to the right without using throttle or braking to control the vehicle. It takes a little practice to get the technique down, but all cars are required to pass to progress to the finals. While it seemed to intimidate some teams at first glance, the reality is all production vehicles we test can do this, from subcompact cars to pickup trucks.
American HyPower started the day’s runs in the chilly morning. Their modified second-generation Toyota Prius had no problem with the course. After a couple or so familiarization runs, this Prius aced the test. Bonus points should be given for the “XPRIZE” license plates.
Illuminati Motor Works brought their long, homemade sedan over under silent electrical power--not even a whir could be heard. Beneath the primered body is an amazingly detailed tubework skeleton, and as seen the previous day as electronics engineer Nate Knappenburger hastily completed preparation work, a pile of wires. With its long length and rough first impression, expectations for team Illuminati were modest. Joking the whole time, team leader Kevin Smith made very short work of this test, ultimately achieving 48.32 mph--much higher than any other team I had witnessed. The key trick was using a Honda Prelude all-wheel steering system.
Edison2 brought over yet another of its four cars. Having aced this test three times already, the small, outboard-wheeled feather-weight did it in three runs. Actually, it could have been just two, but the brakes were used just a few feet early on exit. In and out took no more than 10 minutes.
Then came the car that has struggled with this test, the Aptera. The large, professional team gathered as the three-wheeler tackled the test again. The day before, it could not complete the course without striking a cone, even after at least 28 attempts. The team made several suspension tweaks after that session, and in between runs, they adjusted tire pressure. Right from the first run Thursday, it was clear that they would ultimately pass. The runs were cleaner and the speed was fine. There were two perfect runs within .5 mph of the 45 mph target, but there is no number rounding. The cutoff is 45 mph--anything less simply would not meet that standard. After about a dozen runs, the Aptera cleared the hurtle. In total, it was more than 40 timed passes before the Aptera met the standard, and even when it did, the car did not look as secure as its competitors. All teams are humbled by some challenges through the testing gauntlet, and clearly this was the reality check for Aptera.
The West Philly EVX team also had difficulties this week with some tests. Problems with its Harley-Davidson engine in the Ford Focus hybrid had the student-based team struggling. Without the motorcycle engine, the Focus struggled to reach 60 mph--necessary for both the acceleration and the deceleration tests.
They worked and worked on it Thursday, eventually getting the motorcycle engine running. Sure enough, with the added power, the Focus passed both the 0-60 mph and 60-0 mph tests.
They ran the accident avoidance test on electric power. It appeared to be a challenge for the driver, more so than the car. Where some teams had professional race car drivers to pilot the vehicles through the test, aka “ringers,” many teams like West Philly had the hands-on car builders behind the wheel. There was a whole group watching the challenge, and cheers rang out when the Focus finally made a clean run.
The ups, downs, and even camaraderie make the X Prize competition a real human story, at times feeling like a reality television show. To help further share the experience, we’re working on a series of videos that we’ll be sharing in the days ahead. And will report next week as the international competitors go through shakedown in Michigan.