Review: ‘Ingenious,’ by Jason Fagone

The Very Light Car (AP)

There is much to enjoy in Jason Fagone's new book, Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America. Fagone, a writer for Wired, GQ, and other august publications has put together a fairly gripping story about a contest to revolutionize the car industry, the Automotive X Prize.

The $10 million competition was put together to inspire the creation of a car that could get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon of gas. I say "equivalent of" because many—most—were using electricity, or a hybrid of gas and electricity, to get the job done. Dozens of teams entered. Fagone followed four of them around as they grappled with financial, technological, and personal limitations.

Those four teams: Illuminati Motor Works, a squad headed up by a tinkerer working for the Illinois EPA that pieced together a battery-powered frankencar in an Iowa cornfield; Edison2, led by a German immigrant convinced that aerodynamics and lightness will allow their (extremely expensive, built from scratch) Very Light Car (their name) to win the contest; a group of West Philly high school students who jammed together a Harley engine and an electric motor into a Ford Focus; and Aptera Motors, a struggling startup electric car company hoping to win the prize in order to attract investors.

The biggest personality to emerge in the book is Oliver Kuttner, the aforementioned German immigrant who is heading up Edison2 and building a car so light a small woman can push it down the street with one hand. His manic energy and impressive salesmanship leap off the page. One gets the sense that Fagone is swept up along with it:

The fact that one piece of the car is light means that the next piece can be light, and the next piece. And when Oliver and his team go to assemble the puzzle of the car, fastening lightness to lightness, they end up with something so elemental, so irreducible, that Oliver feels it's explicable only by a sort of Zen koan: "The car is light because the car is light."

Kuttner is focusing on lightness because that's the easiest way to increase efficiency without sacrificing reliability: Electric motors are still dodgy, a fact with which other teams are forced to struggle as the competition progresses through the "shakedown" (the testing phase of the contest) and "knockout" stages of the X Prize. The Prize itself is a clever enough gimmick, the latest effort to spur innovation through a private competition. Fagone highlights one of its predecessors, the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 gift to the first man to fly from New York to Paris:

Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic because a Frenchman named Raymond Orteig, a mustachioed hotel magnate and aviation buff, had promised to give $25,000 to anyone who could accomplish that particular feat. Lindbergh was trying to win a prize. … [Orteig's] $25,000 had induced others to spend more than $400,000, a relatively small price to launch an entirely new industry. It was almost like magic. But it wasn't. It was greed, or competitiveness, or both.

If I have a complaint with Ingenious, it is that Fagone conflates the unobjectionable nature of organizations like the X Prize using private funds to stimulate private business with the government funneling taxpayer money to campaign contributors to do the same. For instance, I was somewhat surprised by the lack of skepticism displayed by Fagone here:

No one knows if [Energy Secretary Steven] Chu has any interest in the X Prize. But Periello has done a favor for [one of the team owners] by asking Chu to take a quick look at the winning X Prize cars, and Chu has apparently agreed. It's a huge opportunity for all three of the teams; a kind word from Chu could release millions in loan guarantees and other government funds.

Emphasis mine because, come on, that's an insane way to disburse research funds and business loan guarantees. And we see how silly this is in the sentences that follow, as Chu is more confused than impressed by one of the winning vehicles: He has no idea what to make of the car that won the competition and no apparent interest in learning its intricacies. Chu may be a Nobel Prize winner, but he's neither a car manufacturer nor an expert on the issues involved with building such automobiles. It is a neat encapsulation of everything that's wrong with having political appointees—even really smart ones like Chu—in charge of picking winners and losers. It's why you end up with Fiskers and A123s and Solyndras and all other manner of terrible, poorly run businesses suckling at the government teat for every modest success like a Tesla.

But Fagone is a true believer; indeed, he seems more put out by "right wing radio hosts [who] yammered for days" about the failed projects and "Republican congressman" who subjected poor Secretary Chu to some oversight than the wasted money or the crony capitalism. It's a small thing, but an annoying one.

Regardless, Ingenious is a fun read for car buffs, filled with quirky folks and quirkier autos. It's a testament to Fagone's writing that I left the book wanting to know more about one of the couples featured in the book, the wifely half of which initiates a divorce at the contest's conclusion. And I wanted to know more about the cars as well. Will the Illuminati's huge car ever be more than a one-off oddity? Will Edison2's tiny car win over skeptical corporate overlords?

Perhaps most importantly: Are any of these cars the future of automaking? Or simply examples of the many experiments to fall by the wayside as progress marches on?