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West Philadelphia high school dares to build a 100 m.p.g. car

Students from West Philadelphia make a viable 'X PRIZE' run against auto companies from around the globe. The potential prize: $7.5 million for the school and a 100 m.p.g. car for the world.

By / Staff writer / May 24, 2010

West Philadelphia High School team members peer into the power plant compartment of the Ford Focus they modified. They are the only school group among more than 100 original teams.

Tim Shaffer/Reuters

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Can a team of high school students beat out dozens of adult competitors and win $7.5 million by building the "Model T" of the 21st century?

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They're working on it.

A group of about 15 students from West Philadelphia High School is in the running for the 2010 Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE, a competition to build street-ready vehicles that can average 100 miles per gallon or more.

The West Philly Hybrid X team, a largely after-school project, has two cars among the 22 teams and 27 cars still in the competition. A "knockout" round in mid-June will further narrow the field. The winner will be determined in finals held at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, July 19-30.

West Philly is the only high school team in the competition, which has been taking places in stages for more than a year. Originally, 111 teams with 136 vehicles entered. Other survivors range from small start-up companies to Tata Motors, the giant automaker in India.

What West Philly has accomplished is really "an amazing story," says Eric Cahill, senior director of the Automotive X Prize, a project of the X PRIZE Foundation that has held similar competitions to build private spacecraft and decode the human genome.

The auto X PRIZE competition is "extremely rigorous," Mr. Cahill says. "There's no child's play here. These aren't concept cars. These are expected to be production-capable vehicles.

"This isn't a college championship. This is really the pros. You've got to show us your stuff or you will be eliminated."

In 1998 West Philly math and science teacher Simon Hauger started an after-school program for students in the automotive program, which includes about 150 of the 900 students at the school. Previous West Philly teams have built or modified a number of vehicles, entering them into national competition such as the alternative vehicle Tour del Sol.

The Automotive X PRIZE presents a new challenge: How to build a safe, reliable car that will get at least 100 m.p.g. on gasoline or its equivalent using other fuels, such as electricity or biodiesel.

In early testing both West Philly cars appear to have achieved the goal.

Vehicles in the Mainstream Class must have four wheels and carry four passengers for at least 200 miles between refuelings. The winner will receive $5 million. For this competition, the West Philly team has adapted a Ford Focus by taking out the gasoline engine and replacing it with an electric motor using lithium-ion batteries. That's supplemented by a two-cylinder Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine.