Wednesday, September 04, 2013

"Ingenious" by Jason Fagone

Ingenious by Jason Fagone was an interesting book the covered a group of remarkable automotive inventors.

Fagone is a writer who I've posted on a number of times and who sent me a galley copy of the book due out November 5th. When I first heard of the book a number of months ago, I thought it was going to be about the electric car industry, but the thread pulling together the aforementioned inventors was their respective efforts at winning the Automotive X Prize. The contest was started by Peter Diamandis out of his successful X Prize for private space travel, which featured teams attempting to win a $10M prize by sending three passengers to 100 kilometers into space and safely back, and then repeating it two weeks later.

The Automotive X Prize was an attempt by Diamandis to kick start an industry just as the original X Prize helped launch prize space travel, but rather the intent of this contest was to push forward automotive hyper fuel efficiency. The contest went through various iterations of how it would run and it wound up with a target of 100 MPGe, or MPG equivalents, and a $10M total prize purse split into three divisions with one $5M prize and two different $2.5M prizes available. Entrants had to satisfy the MPGe threshold along with meeting various performance and safety benchmarks. If multiple cars within a division satisfied all criteria for winning the prize, then a 100 mile race would decide the winner.

What stood out the most in Fagone’s book were terribly interesting characters, and great stories about them that clearly came from thorough reporting done. The people and teams featured most prominently were the West Philly Hybrid X team of high school students led by former math teacher Simon Hauger, Oliver Kuttner and the “Very Light Car” from his Edison2 team and Kevin Smith and his team Illuminati Motor Works. Towards the end of the book Fagone wrote about the electric car industry and its most successful entry to date in Tesla Motors and while Tesla certainly an interesting company led by a fascinating guy, what drives (no pun intended) Ingenious forward is the bootstrapping efforts and entrepreneurial spirit of people like Kuttner and Smith and their work with physical objects in their hyper-efficient cars.

If I were to quibble with Ingenious, the blend of different characters written about made it at times hard to keep apart who was being written about, but that was primarily a difficulty just in the beginning of the book, and perhaps was a function of the chapter titles not always being terribly descriptive of the topics or people they covered.

Regardless of this minor annoyance for me, it was definitely a compelling read on terribly interesting people trying to accomplish something great.