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Thursday, June 17, 2010 06:33 am

Car guys go for the X Prize

Illuminati Motor Works hits the track with 500 mpg electric car


Illuminati crew member George Kennedy takes down measurements for the team’s electric car, “Seven.”

In a garage-turned-workshop south of Divernon sits what could be the future of personal transportation. Surrounded by spare parts and power tools is a made-from-scratch car that looks like something a science fiction writer in the 1930s would have dreamed about. The outside of this deceptively-classic “teardrop” car looks like a cross between a Volkswagen Beetle and a Le Mans race car, but the curvy body belies what’s inside: a remarkably efficient electric propulsion system that could get the electrical equivalent of 500 miles per gallon. Plus, it has gull-wing doors.

A team of seven good-humored friends calling themselves Illuminati Motor Works is building their four-door future car, dubbed “Seven,” for the $10 million Automotive X Prize competition, a contest meant to “inspire a new generation of viable, super-efficient vehicles that help break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change,” according to the competition’s website. The contest is sponsored by the X Prize Foundation, which also sponsors competitions for a private moon mission, genome research and other projects. The Illuminati team began their work in 2007, and Illinois Times has been following its progress ever since [see “Eyes on the prize,” by Amanda Robert, March 26, 2008, at illinoistimes.com].

The automotive contest started in April and will end with one team in each of three categories splitting the pot in September. Members of the Illuminati crew spend nearly every moment of their free time working on the car, and so far they’ve successfully navigated the checkpoints and eliminations that have whittled the field down from 111 teams to only 28, spread across the three categories.

Seven’s four gull-wing doors mix sports-car styling with easy access.
“We’re like Jeri Ryan in Star Trek,” jokes team leader Kevin Smith, referring to Ryan’s character, Seven of Nine – a play on the car’s name and the number of teams remaining in their division. Smith is an energetic look-alike of the Dr. Nick character from the popular The Simpsons cartoon, and his quick-witted sarcasm keeps the team laughing, even under the stress of building a new car out of parts they salvaged and invented. Should Illuminati win, they’ll seek investors to help turn their design into a production vehicle, with a manufacturing plant based in Springfield. The team estimates start-up costs would be around $40 million, and the factory could create about 240 jobs directly and upwards of 5,000 jobs indirectly.

But first, the team faces the next big test of their collective genius, the contest’s Knockout Qualifying Stage from June 16 to June 30 at the Michigan International Speedway. There, Seven is undergoing inspections and multiple challenges, like meeting standards for emissions, range and performance, not to mention the minimum 66 MPGe (miles per gallon or energy equivalent) for this stage of the contest. Emissions won’t be a problem, since the car has none. Smith says Seven carries enough energy in its lithium iron phosphate batteries to equal one gallon of gas, so if their efficiency calculations are correct, the car will have a range of almost 500 miles. Charging Seven takes between six and eight hours on normal household power, says Nate Knappenburger, the team electrician, but it costs only $3 to charge the car fully.

One secret of the car’s efficiency and performance is the highly aerodynamic design. The body of the car is optimized to slice through the wind, with dramatic fender flares and a totally flat undercarriage that minimize air resistance. The car’s low drag means it requires very little energy to move at highway speeds, Smith says. A typical car takes about 25 kilowatts (about 18 horsepower) to go down the highway, he points out, but Seven takes only six kilowatts (eight horsepower) – an energy savings of 55 percent.

“At highway speeds, about two-thirds of your power is used just to push the car through the wind,” Smith points out, adding that Seven’s front area is only about one square meter. He relates a story that happened earlier in the competition, in which a group of professional aerodynamicists criticized the team’s design. On the trip home, Smith says, a tarp covering the trailer-hauled car laid completely flat with no flapping in the area previously critiqued, proving the Illuminati design to work.

Jen Danzinger, Smith’s wife and the team’s graphic artist, says the car’s theoretical top speed is 220 miles per hour – though they’ve only taken it up to 70 mph – and it can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in about 10 seconds. Unlike internal combustion engines, electric motors put out the same power at all rotation speeds, meaning Seven can generate a whopping 398 foot-pounds of torque from the instant the “gas” pedal is pressed.

The car is entirely road-worthy, from the turn signals and air conditioner to the speaker system with a custom music player dock.

Nate Knappenburger and Thomas Pasko install wiring for Seven’s air conditioner and heater.

And those gull-wing doors? They aren’t just for style; they helped the Illuminati crew clock the fastest emergency exit drill the X Prize judges had ever seen. Featuring door pulls from a DeLorean DMC-12, the iconic gull-wing car featured in the Back to the Future film series, the special doors are just one of the safety and convenience features incorporated into the car. In case four gull-wings aren’t enough, the spacious trunk – which team members joke can fit two dead bodies – has two gull-wing doors as well.

The team’s name is a jab at conspiracy theorists who believe an elite group of politicians and academics control the world and keep alternative energy sources from prospering.

”I think Kevin wants to stick his finger in the eye of the monster,” jokes Thomas Pasko, the team’s all-around mechanic and owner of Thomas Automotive Precision auto shop in Springfield. Despite their efforts to push the energy envelope of conventional transportation, the crew has received a couple of laughable comments from web visitors calling them Satanists and condemning their project as an evil extension of the global elite.

“You’re always going to have those wing-nuts out there, laughs Danzinger. Some people just don’t quite get it.”

Between jotting down equations on a white board and fiddling with numerous wires and switches, Smith says he gets a thrill from making his machines the best. He’s an accomplished tinkerer, once turning a 20-horsepower Briggs and Stratton lawn mower engine into a high-revving, two-stage stored-air supercharged monster cranking out 50 horsepower.

“For me, the competition is the whole reason I do it,” Smith says of his current project, though his job at the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the recycling bins in his and Danzinger’s kitchen suggest concern for the environment may have something to do with it as well.

The rest of the team members cite camaraderie as their motivation.

“We see it as just helping out a friend,” says Josh Spradlin, who helped design the car’s body and fabricated many parts from scratch. “Even if we don’t win, Kevin will have a great daily driver, and we’ll have helped him do something that needed to be done.”

What’s next for the Illuminati gang?

Smith says in typical deadpan style, “There’s always the lunar lander contest.”

He may be only half-joking.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.


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