Eyes on the prize
Five local guys are designing and building the car of the future in a field near you
“Somebody has to do something, that somebody is
Scribbled in blue and yellow chalk on the cinderblock wall of a garage plunked in the middle of a Divernon cornfield, these nine words remind Illuminati Motor Works — a team of local engineers, automotive technicians, and car enthusiasts — what’s at stake.
On a cold, snowy day in February, they huddle around a woodburning stove in the garage’s far corner. Clad in Carhartt coveralls and bulky winter coats, they ignore the chill and instead joke about who drives too slowly, reminisce about the days before computerized design programs, and lament the American automotive industry’s dependence on foreign oil. But they’re not here to shoot the breeze, and the conversation eventually returns to the mission at hand. Kevin Smith, the team’s captain, shows off artistic renderings of a 1940s Dick Tracy-lookalike car and gestures at the initial phase of the real-life version, strategically arranged on the concrete floor behind them. A rescued suspension from a junkyard Dodge Neon and two scuzzy seats extracted from a Pontiac Fiero are the only tangible components so far, but more multicolored chalk illustrates the vehicle’s future outline and a nearby pile of metal goodies promises other parts.
They’ve worked countless nights and weekends since August to get this far, and when they’re finally finished they’ll have more than just an average car: They’ll showcase a sleek, affordable, ecological design that they say will not only change the world but will also do it in grand fashion as an official contender in the international Progressive Automotive X Prize competition. Their vehicle will dominate all of the competition’s requirements, they say. It will achieve more than 100 miles per gallon, emit a minimal amount of greenhouse gases, and smoke its opponents in cross-country stage races set for 2009 and 2010. So far, Illuminati Motor Works is one of 60 teams vying for the competition’s $10 million purse. They’ve already pegged themselves as the underdogs because they aren’t toiling away in professional laboratories or rolling in multimillion-dollar budgets. But what they do possess are the engineering skills and technical know-how to get the job done, plus a penchant for change that has already caught the attention of such national media as Wired magazine. It doesn’t hurt that they’re thrifty. They’re stockpiling spare parts from Springfield-area salvage yards and combining them with innovative technology to create a car that’ll be uniquely their own. As they say, they’re not here to reinvent the wheel — just to make it better. “This vehicle that we’re building isn’t necessarily our kernel, but we see how things can be improved and adapted to achieve what we’re looking for,” says Thomas Pasko, the team’s automotive technician. “It’s a matter of ‘Why not use the history that other manufacturers have already lived?’ ”
Five guys are the heart of Illuminati Motor Works.
Smith, referred to by his teammates as the “alpha dog,” works for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. It’s his garage that harbors the team’s best-kept secrets and ingenuity, and it’s his enthusiasm and experience that keep them going. As a college student at the University of Illinois-Chicago in the ’90s, Smith helped design mini-Baja, solar-powered, and electric cars and even, as he puts it, “cleaned up” at a few national competitions. Since then he’s worked on motorcycles and cars here and there, biding his time until an opportunity like the AXP came up.
Kevin Hecht, an electrical engineer, works with Smith at the IEPA. He knows a lot about electric vehicles, vehicle propulsion, and fuel economy from a previous career with General Motors. He worked on the EV1, the first road-going electric vehicle launched in the ’90s, until the price of oil fell and the automotive industry lost interest in alternative cars — until now, that is.
Steve Becker is the team realist. The other guys describe him as the one who makes them step back when they need to see the “trees for the forest.” He was also employed by the IEPA but recently retired after 17 years. Lately he’s been building motorcycles from the ground up; he signed on for the AXP to flex some graphic-design muscles that he never used while working for the state. Pasko, who met Smith years ago at AutoZone, has operated Springfield’s Thomas Automotive Precision since 1985. He credits two major influences for his love affair with cars: Speed Racer, the cartoon that he used to watch every day after school, and Bob Hill, his sixth-grade teacher who opened the door for him to study automotive technology at the Capital Area Vocational Center. He thrives on innovations. Basically, he says with a chuckle, that means that he buys a lot of “big-boy toys.”
Josh Spradlin, the fifth member of Illuminati Motor Works, is a microfilm operator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. He’s helped Smith out with past projects and says that even though he doesn’t know anything about electric motors or regenerative braking, he knows how to turn a wrench. He’s always around to weld or assemble parts, and he provides comic relief in high-pressure situations. The team jokes that Hecht gets the credit (or the blame, if the team loses) for introducing Illuminati Motor Works to the AXP.
The pair began scouring junkyards for usable parts and, during lunch breaks, measured cars in the parking lot to determine the proper shape and size for their vehicle. When all the components seemed to fit, they asked the other guys to join in the fun and officially applied to the AXP last September. So why “Illuminati Motor Works”? They chose the name, Smith says, with the intent of educating and making things interesting. He blames the Steven Seagal movie Fire Down Below for perpetuating the myth that the Illuminati — a secret society of government officials — has been hiding a 100-mpg carburetor from consumers. It’s all a conspiracy theory, he says with a tinge of exasperation, because there’s no such thing. The only way to achieve 100 mpg is through an efficient engine and fuel-injection system, so that’s what they plan to do.
“We call ourselves the Illuminati,” he says, “the great government conspiracy that doesn’t exist, and neither does the 100-mile-to-the-gallon carburetor. But here’s a car that will do it.”
They’re calling their creation “Seven.”
Becker, the head designer, says it will feature a sophisticated design, somewhat resembling that of the Batmobile. When pressed by a reporter, however, he won’t say which version he’s talking about. He does say that it’s not the first Batmobile, reminiscent of a 1957 Chevy Bel-Air, or the latest, which appears to be inspired by military tanks. They’ve also played with various color combinations, he adds — they’re thinking that black and white might be cool.
Illuminati Motor Works accepted a bigger challenge from the get-go by entering the mainstream-vehicle class of the competition, meaning that their vehicle must carry four or more passengers and drive on four or more wheels. They could’ve taken the easy road, Smith says, and entered the alternative class, which has only a two-passenger requirement and no constraints on the number of wheels. It would have been simpler to build a vehicle for the alternative class, he explains, because its specified compact, narrow design would easily provide the elements needed for fuel efficiency and speed. But at the same time, Smith says, how many people would actually purchase a two-wheeled car that looks like a torpedo? “People want to know: ‘How are you going to get your aerodynamics down and make the car look cool?’ ” Smith says. “We think we’ve got a pretty good compromise here. It doesn’t look like a bubblemobile.”
Surprisingly, the seats play a crucial role. The tattered Fiero seats are the same dimensions as the cushioned racing seats that the team will eventually install in the vehicle. They’re low to the ground, so they allow substantial headroom for men as tall as 6-foot-2 and as heavy as 240 pounds. Larger seats, Smith says, would require them to widen the front end and would hamper aerodynamics. “The bigger you make it, the more frontal area you have,” he says. “That’s basically an aerodynamic footprint. The larger the aerodynamic footprint, the lower your fuel economy.”
They also plan to solve this problem by extending their vehicle to 16 1/2 feet long, roughly the length of a typical van, and by tapering its back end. They will install rear-facing back seats that will fit passengers comfortably within the allotted space.
The AXP requires each team to write a business plan explaining why its vehicle is practical for consumer use and how it could be mass-produced at a scale of 10,000 units. For this reason, the members of Illuminati Motor Works want their design to be as simple and efficient as possible but still include all of the creature comforts and safety features that consumers expect.
October 2008 partnership with Hyundai Motor Company in return for a $10,000
sponsorship for the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE. Illuminati was
asked to retrofit two 2009 Hyundai Sonatas with off-the-shelf products to
increase fuel efficiency and then demonstrate the vehicles' improvements at
the inaugural Maker Faire in Austin, Texas.
They plan to incorporate a tilt steering wheel, airbags, windshield wipers, a radio, and even cup holders into their vehicle. Their prototype will have a manual transmission unless they get more funding, Smith says, but in the future they’d like to engineer an automatic design. They’d also like to weave “more magic,” he says, into their car by designing a hard plastic top that snaps off the vehicle’s body to make room for hauling. It sounds like mechanical wizardry, but Smith says that four-wheel steering is another could-be feature. Because they’re using a pair of front ends from Dodge Neons (a front-wheel-drive vehicle) in their design, he explains, they could steer from and power any of the four wheels. This innovation would help the vehicle make tighter turns in spite of its extra length.
By mid-March, the multicolored chalk lines have been replaced by a solitary blue rectangle, which helps the team align the components of their vehicle. In the past few weeks they’ve welded the suspension in place and manufactured a large steel backbone that gives “Seven” midframe support. Smith likens the frame to that of the De Lorean. Fashioned from the same type of steel used in Formula 1 and NASCAR vehicles, the frame will provide extra impact protection for passengers. Instead of crushing inward as most long cars do, he explains, their vehicle can withstand the pressure of an impact and will just be scooted to the side. At this stage in the game, the team members are playing things close to the vest. They’ve hinted about some of the tricks up their sleeves to Illinois Times, but for the most part they’re keeping mum until they unveil the final creation.
Becker and Smith are developing a top-secret body composite, purportedly a superstrong and well-insulated material that’s as cheap as the fiberglass used in boat building but as heavy as the Kevlar in bulletproof vests. The result, they say, is “like a block of steel that is almost weightless.”
Hecht, the electrical guru, is working on some new energy-recovery systems. The goal is to use the energy that is normally expended into the air as greenhouses gases. The techniques are pricey, he says, but should be efficient enough to shoot Seven well over the 100-mpg requirement.
The team’s engine may turn out to be the biggest surprise of all. The Illuminati crew admits that it has a hybrid drivetrain, meaning that it will run on all commercially available fuel alternatives, including electricity, biodiesel, ethanol, and natural gas, but for now the rest is classified.
The AXP organization hasn’t announced the final
guidelines or deadlines of the competition, so all the Illuminati crew
knows, Smith says, is that its vehicle needs to be ready for the qualifying
race, set for early 2009. That means they have less than a year to locate all
of the parts they need, come up with new technology for their vehicle, and
assemble the whole thing from scratch. That’s not even counting the
time they’ll need to perfect their business plan, safety dossier, and
legal materials. “There is a very small amount of time allotted
to us to build a car from the ground up,” Smith says. “Even for
the Big Three, building a car from the ground up in one year isn’t
usually what they do — they usually have three years.”
The hardest part, the members of Illuminati Motor Works say, has been planning around their day jobs and family lives. They get together on weeknights and weekends, but in some cases they have taken off work to start or finish up tasks. “Even an hour working on something else is an hour less that’s going into the vehicle,” Becker says. If they do get behind, Smith says, they don’t get stressed over it. They won’t adhere to a strict schedule, as long as they complete the entire car by the morning of the race — even if it means working in the truck on the way there.
But just in case they aren’t ready, they have a backup plan. Some teams have evaded the timing problem, Smith says, by taking existing vehicles such as the Loremo and Aptera and modifying them to fit the competition’s requirements. Although the members of Illuminati Motor Works don’t think that this approach will get them close to 100 mpg, he says, it could achieve the qualifier’s less stringent 75-mpg requirement. If all else fails, they’ll have a second car, complete with their pioneered components and energy recovery systems, waiting in the wings.
Getting funding has also proved challenging. Unlike the teams that have multimillion-dollar budgets and sponsors, Illuminati Motor Works is footing most of the bill. Using parts from other vehicles has helped keep costs down, but they’re still looking at a final price of $25,000 to $35,000.
“Our approach is being able to take basically off-the-shelf items and building this ourselves in a garage in a cornfield in Illinois,” Smith says. “We are on a very, very tight budget. It’s all Visa and MasterCard right now.”
They’re hoping that their tight budget will work in their favor, especially because the AXP isn’t looking for a million-dollar car. Keeping the cost low helps guarantee that the car can be mass-produced for a low price.
Even though what Illuminati Motor Works is doing is time-consuming, stressful, and expensive, each team member says that he’s proud to be part of an initiative that could change the way the world works. Spradlin says that he wants to look back and tell his kids that he made a real difference. Too often, he says, people complain about problems but never work to come up with solutions. As part of Illuminati Motor Works, he’s pouring sweat into something that he says is pretty incredible for five average guys in Illinois corn country.
“If there’s a chance to impact the way the world operates, why not give it a shot?” Spradlin says. “I might not have all the knowledge in the world about what we’re doing, but I’m willing to roll my sleeves and get my hands dirty.”
When Hecht was at GM, he says, he saw how dependence on oil would eventually cause problems for the United States and the rest of the world. A car that takes advantage of other fuels, he says, may encourage people to use alternative energy in all areas of their lives. Hecht and Becker both say that Americans should win the competition and that they want Illuminati Motor Works to be the ones to do it.
“We’re good at doing the new stuff,” Hecht says. “The United States basically gets credit for inventing the airplane, inventing the microwave oven, inventing color TV, putting men on the moon — so we ought to be the country that does well. “It’s a worldwide competition, but someone from the U.S. ought to go win the thing.”
“Friends have asked if we’re going to win,” Becker says. “If we didn’t think we were, we wouldn’t be doing it.”
Pasko shares the belief that Americans need to move away from oil dependency and wants to help usher in the change. He loves his muscle cars, he says, but he also hopes to teach consumers that they need economical, ecologically sound vehicles for everyday use. He also gets the side benefit, Pasko adds, of showing people that there’s more to automotive technicians than they think. “Automotive mechanic technicians are viewed oftentimes as not necessarily the most intellectually advanced of the society,” he says, “and I want people to see that there are some of us out there that have gray matter.”
Because they’re not reengineering everything and because they don’t have a huge budget, Smith says, the members of Illuminati Motor Works hope to show everyone that they can win the competition in a simple, inexpensive manner.
Until then, they’re finishing up their vehicle and waiting for the moment when they get the chance to show their stuff. “Even if we don’t win the big money at the competition,” Smith says, “we will still win, because people will think: ‘These guys did this? Working where? In a cornfield with some scrap steel and a woodburning stove for heat.’ ”
Contact Amanda Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org