A review of
of Ingenious: a True Story of Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America by Jason Fagone

Fagone's Ingenious is downright heart-warming and inspiring, and not in an icky, Disney way. In a conventional sense, there's no happy ending, in that none of the real-life protagonists become rich or famous. Instead their stories illustrate the bottom-line truth of engineering careers: that a job well-done on a technology about which the implementor cares deeply is truly its own reward.

Fagone's carefully researched and readable book follows several teams that competed in the Automotive X Prize competition that kicked off with the X Prize Foundation's announcement of rules in 2007, but didn't have its denouement until the awarding of the Prize in 2012. The Foundation's stated goal was to foster development of a commercially plausible vehicle capable of 100 MPGe. Judged by those criteria, the competition was abundantly successful.

Fagone recounts in detail the saga of three teams: Illuminati Autoworks, from a small-town in Illinois; Edison2 from Richmond, VA; and a high school team from West Philadelphia, PA. Fagone sketches the travails of other competitors like odds-on favorite Aptera, but his heart is with the small-timer underdogs whose resolve and passion are remarkable. Each of the three projects has colorful characters at the helm. Illuminati is led by Kevin Smith, a brilliant underachiever who recognizes himself as such. The captain of Edison2 is Oliver Kuttner, a maverick German entrepreneur who makes decisions impulsively and by instinct, and who is willing to outwork any competitor to succeed. The inspiring teacher behind the West Philly team is Simon Hauger, who produces remarkable results on a challenging project despite the lack of relevant expertise of all the contributors.

Ingenious is a surprisingly decent technical read, especially given that its author is a newspaper sports reporter. The description of the aerodynamic challenges of designing an ultra-high fuel economy car are particularly well described. In addition, Fagone makes no secret of his belief that the Automotive X Prize was particularly poorly managed, and that the organizers truly tortured contestants by continually changing the rules of the competition. While participation in the troubled contest has not brought worldly success to any of the teams, Fagone convincingly makes the case that the teams he covers in detail were all winners.

Much thanks to Edward Durney for alerting me to the existence of this fine book, to Brad Templeton for making me aware of the Automotive X Prize in the first place, and to Mark Finnern for running the Future Salon where I heard Brad speak.

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alison@she-devel.com (Alison Chaiken)