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Day 1: Cram session

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Inside a shadowed garage bay on the paved plains of the M.I.S. racing oval, the aluminum decals on an Edison2 Xprize car threw light at me, and my pulse began to race. For months I’ve watched this event take shape on an LCD screen. But today as I emerged from my old station wagon and began walking to the large multi-team garage, I felt a sense of wonder — like a time-traveler hurtling back from the future into the unwritten pages of history, or slung-shot forward into the dawn of transportation’s future. When I stepped inside and saw the exotic vehicles in three dimensions all around me, both happened at once.

I walked to the largest human in the Edison2 bay. Oliver Kuttner took his wife’s hand and announced quietly, “Hey Sweetles, Eric Lane is here. Let me introduce you to some teams Eric.”

I met the teams that weren’t tied up in technical inspection: TW4XP from Germany, X-Tracer from Switzerland, Spira from Taiwan, and Western Washington University. All the Xprize teams were gathered together, working in separate bays under the long roof of garage 3. All but Aptera. The CEO chose to rent a portable facility from Pratt Miller racing and remain apart from the other teams. As Oliver and I approached the threshold of the Aptera tent, they barked, “We’re a little busy.” So we walked two building over to technical inspections, where the last Edison2 was under the microscope.

“The technical inspectors really know their stuff,” Oliver said. “This is a slow careful process. At first it was a little nerve racking, but we’re used to it now.” My ears picked up a mumble from Bobby, an Edison2 mechanic: “If you can’t duck it, f*** it.”

I walked back to the team garage and watched the teams work. These were the remaining twelve from a field of 111 teams who submitted 136 vehicles. With everything on the line, these technological gladiators survived two harrowing gauntlets of efficiency; this week is the third with the stiffest requirements yet for range, economy and emissions.

In the garage I felt an air of hard-won confidence. But as I wandered and spoke with teams, it became clear the threat of sudden elimination hung like a guillotine over everyone. I saw it in the nervous glances at unfinished details, or the way a lone sentence trailed off into uncertainty.

These Xprize competitors walk through a never-ending mine field. They fret over which trivial component will unhinge them and prepare for if — or when — the trap door will open up below. As I wandered, clueless what to absorb first, Oliver joined me: “On the last knockout, we had a sixteen dollar part fail and it cost us two and a half million dollars,” he said, alluding to the loss of their side-by-side car and a chance at the 2.5 million dollar purse for that vehicle class.

Through the hot afternoon the sun-baked German spewed information like a dike about to come apart. He discussed team car platforms, carbon ‘buckets’, precision of execution, who has the best chance, CAFE regulation, exemptions, current and past platforms and on and on and on…

Regarding CAFE standards, he said some auto manufacturers are pursuing the mileage allotments and subsidies of electric vehicles like a ‘carbon credit’ for car manufacturers — a way to offset the growing penalties of their low MPG products and a government with the political will to enforce a Bush-era removal of CAFE exemptions. That story is unfolding in California with the recent deals between Honda and Tesla and becomes more relevant as our national CAFE average is bumped up year over year.

Under Obama, standards are slated to rise ten miles per gallon by 2016. “It is my personal opinion,” Oliver said, “and that of a number of people in the industry that when standards go to 34 miles per gallon, it will be nearly impossible to meet with any car in production today.”

We walked up to an Edison2 on jacks and Oliver flicked his fingers over various components. “See this?” he said, “Obsolete. This here? Obsolete. This whole car is obsolete now,” Oliver mumbled as we skimmed over Ron Mathis’ futuristic creation. Kuttner is hitting the fast-forward button, fixated on the future.

Today we touched a brilliantly executed platform of steel and aluminum. But for Oliver and Edison2, the next car is more tangible than the one before us. Whether it exists physically is irrelevant. The evolved  Edison2 vehicle platform is already created — already machined into the minds of Ron Mathis, Oliver Kuttner, and a hardened team of race professionals who run on the high octane of victory, innovation, and imagination made real.

***

More to come on the other teams and the 14-hour tuning day preparing for Wednesday’s urban cycle efficiency test.

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