Surprise, review’s still up on Saturday. Wooh!
Today we have something special. A pre-release review of Ingenious: The Trust Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America by Jason Fagone. It comes out on November 5th.
Let’s be clear, I have no idea why I picked this book up. Seriously… It’s not my style. I can’t tell a Honda from Nissan. My girlfriend has to tell me her car was a Nissan after having driven it for three years, I hadn’t noticed the letters NISSAN emboldened on the steering wheel. But, cars aren’t really the point of Ingenious. The heart of Ingenious lies in the vision of cast of eclectic characters who share the same vision, chase after the X Prize and build a car that can go a hundred miles on a gallon.
See, the X Prize Foundation‘s mission statement is an “educational nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.” Maybe you’ve heard of them. They’re responsible for driving the private exploration of space, in 2004. Since then, they’ve strive to make a larger, more lasting impact on our world: go where the major car manufacturers in the world are not will, reduce emissions and dependence on oil.
The original goal was to make a car that could go 250 miles on a gallon. Eventually reduced to 100 mpg for political reasons, that’d still be a step in the right direction. And that’s where Ingenious comes in.
Following four spirited groups of people, all striving towards the same goal, but with different motivations, Ingenious really brings the trials to life. This isn’t a manual, lecturing on mechanics; this is the soul of invention and endeavor. The spirit of the book is the passion of those involved in the projects. A group of teenagers from West Philadelphia who fit electric engines into the bodies of Porches for fun (oh and their car also runs on the motor of a Harley motorcycle), a couple from Illinois (Kevin and Jen) who just want to build even while their jobs put them on furlough, a designer who built a submarine from wood and airplanes from scratch, and a man who discovered building a 300 pound car was actually too light.
It’s always a good thing when the reader can feel the passion from the stories they follow and passion isn’t hard to find in Ingenious. Barnaby, the genius aero-smith, describes the soul of Ingenious so well when he says:
“Inventors … follow personal visions that drive them to persist where large organizations give up. It takes a deep, almost illogical level of optimism to keep pushing forward in the face of skepticism and the technical and financial obstacles inherent in advancing the state of the art. Many fail, but those who succeed enrich us all.”
That’s really the book. Where most car companies in this country have given up ny real hope of advancing, in the face of profit and security, the smaller, personal developments are what drive our culture. And that’s what Ingenious speaks to on so many levels.
I didn’t want to put the book down once I picked it up. Except for that one time it got so late my eyes started hurting. See, it turns out I didn’t need to know anything about cars to follow the story, which as is often the case, follows the human journey. Personally, I was rooting for West Philly, because I’m from Philly, but that’s not the point.
Actually, that brings up a decent issue I have with the book’s narration. Despite billing itself as following four different teams, very little time is actually spent with the West Philly team or with Illuminati, the group for Illinois. Most of the books time is spent on Oliver Kuttner, the head of Edison2. That’s sad, honestly, because his team is the least interesting. They’re the team with cooperate sponsorship and people writing hundred thousand dollar checks. Not that Oliver’s team isn’t interesting, they’re just not as interesting, despite occupying the majority of the narrative.
The results of the X Prize aren’t a surprise, this is a historical accounting after all. Only Tesla (a company not covered in this book) ever made it to production, currently selling electrical cars (I want one) to a high income bracket. Still, West Philly’s leader Simon Hauger managed to open a school to inspire his students, many of whom might not have survived or graduated high school if not for this program. Kevin and Jen from Illinois fixed their car, eventually getting over 200MPG in a legally sanctioned vehicle.
Still, the book makes excellent points about how MPG isn’t as straight up a number as everyone would like to believe. It actually changes with different statistics. Ingenious also notes how battery technology has limited the advent of electric cars. For a more relevant example in your life, think of how much smaller your laptop has gotten since 2004. But, really, the book points out how limited the automotive industry has become, how unsexy and uninspired it is. If a couple from Illinois and a bunch of teens from West Philly high can build cares that get over 100MPG, then someone (oil companies) certainly could do it. And that’s a major theme running through the book. Just something to think about.
Really though, the unmitigated passion of those involved in this competition is great. They make me remember that some things are worth having the drive to achieve, even if they aren’t financially perfect plans. That’s what dreams cost sometimes.
Physically, the book is a paperback. It’s got a nice weight but I’m not sure about the paper quality. Sometimes it feels like it will fall apart in my hands. Still, it’s your average paperback and it works.
Over all, the books not bad. The parts with Oliver certainly tend to drag, but the other narratives read better. If you like cars, give it a try. If you like tales of American Ingenuity, give it a try. It’s a nice quick read with some great moments.
Ingenious: The Trust Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America by Jason Fagone comes out on November 5th. You can purchase it at Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble or you local bookstore (if those even exist).