West Philadelphia High auto-design team falls a bit short in competition

Posted: June 29, 2010

A heralded automotive-design team from West Philadelphia High School barely missed advancing late last week in a prestigious $10 million international competition to make a 100 mile-per-gallon automobile - and would have, the team says, but for a bad storm.

The team, which has gained national recognition for holding its own against better-funded corporate entrants, fell just short of a 67 m.p.g. threshold for moving on to the finals of the Progressive Automotive X Prize with one of its cars - attaining 65.1 m.p.g. with a hybrid that was built on the frame of a Ford Focus.

A later analysis revealed that the car actually would have met the requirement - hitting an eye-popping 78 m.p.g. - except that its charger became unplugged, team director Simon Hauger said.

The charger problem occurred while the team was quickly evacuating the charging-station area during the storm at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., where the competition's "knockout" stage was held.

With the charger unplugged from the car, electricity continued to flow from the power supply and was counted by the official metering system even though it didn't end up in the vehicle, Hauger said.

Despite an appeal by the team, race officials said Friday night that the vehicle would not advance to the finals next month.

The goal of the $10 million international competition was to make a car that achieved either 100 m.p.g. or its equivalent, for hybrid or all-electric cars. In the "knockout" stage, which continues through Wednesday, cars had to show they were two-thirds of the way toward that goal.

A second car built at West Philly High's no-frills garage achieved 56 m.p.g. Also a hybrid, it had the body of a GTM, a kit car made by Factory Five in Wareham, Mass.

"A lot of people wanted to dream that we could win," Hauger said. "Just to get to this point was incredible."

"We got over it," cocaptain Jacques Wells, 18, who graduated earlier this month, said of the team's failure to advance. "We realized we still made it further than any other high school in the world."

West Philly was one of just 21 teams that made it to the knockout stage out of 111 that began the competition last year. It was the only high school team among a field of competitors from industry and academia.

The West Philly team consisted of two dozen students and half a dozen faculty and paid staff members, including a couple of engineers from Drexel University. It had a budget of $500,000, more than half of which came from a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

In other high-tech competition last week, teams from the University of Pennsylvania made the semifinals and the quarterfinals in two categories of RoboCup - a robot soccer tournament that was held in Singapore this year.

Penn was in the final eight teams out of 24 in the "standard platform" division - meaning each team got the same factory-made robots but had to supply its own programming.

Penn's other team, a joint effort with Virginia Tech University that required team members to build their own robots, came in fourth among 24 teams in its division.

"It's better than the U.S. did in the World Cup," joked Dan Lee, associate professor of engineering.

Contact staff writer Tom Avril

at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com.

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