INGENIOUS: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America. By Jason Fagone. Crown. 375 pages. $26.
In 2004, Peter Diamandis' XPRIZE Foundation announced a $10 million prize for anyone who could safely launch a three-passenger spacecraft to an altitude of more than 62 miles twice in two weeks. It was won by Bert Rhutan and his company.
In 2007, the same outfit sponsored a $10 million automotive prize. The challenge was to design and build a car that could achieve 100 mpg (or equivalent) and still be manufacturable for the mass market. More than 100 teams entered. Jason Fagone, in his new book "Ingenious," follows four of them.
There's the husband-and-wife team in a pole barn in Illinois, an entrepreneur in Virginia with a band of speed freaks, a previously aimless bunch of high school students from West Philly who hadn't yet learned what couldn't be done, and a deep-pocketed team from southern California.
The challenge was made particularly difficult by the "mass market" requirement. This brought a set of rules rivaled only by the tax code, which made it hard to escape from the orthodoxy that the contest was trying to outgrow. In addition, a late rules change altered the finals from a cross-country course to a two-mile NASCAR track in Michigan that significantly affected the required automotive characteristics.
How does one tell such a many-faceted story while still capturing the passion, perseverance and inventiveness present in all the teams? This is a suspenseful story of ordinary folks who risked ridicule and financial ruin in pursuit of the worthiest of goals. Do you tell four separate stories in parts? Instead, Fagone makes the central timeline of the contest itself the spine of the story to which are attached variegated snippets of the triumphs and failures as each team progressed.
While such a tale cannot help but be replete with technology discussions, the human drama is not forgotten. Any recently assembled ad hoc team of motivated specialists will have some heated conflicts challenging the talents of the team leader.
Multiple, 100-hour work weeks will stress the relationships on the home front, even if the wife is part of the team.
This is an intense story, but the 375 pages will fly by. The inherent disjointedness of such a story plus the sheer number of characters will demand the reader's concentration, but it is an important, very readable story for our times.
Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier is a retired engineer from Hanahan.