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WWU students make a tenacious run for the X-PRIZE

Story by Matthew Anderson ('06)

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Alone in the crowd: WWU’s Viking 45, center, appears in a parade during the X PRIZE finals as the only hybrid vehicle to make it to the last round of competition. In fact, the car could draw on three separate sources of power: two electric motors and one gasoline engine. | Photo by Matthew Anderson (
Gut check: (left to right) Ben Romeijn-Stout, Leif Olsen, Tony Ahmann, Eric Leonhardt, Kyle Foley and Tyler Schmid survey the complicated contents of Viking 45’s engine bay during the finals round of the X PRIZE competition. | Photo by Matthew Anderson (
Wedged underneath Viking 45, Leif Olsen uses a screwdriver to remove the fuel tank from Viking 45. After each round of competition, the fuel tank was removed and weighed so judges could determine how much gasoline the car used. | Photo by Matthew Anderson (
Winners: Li-on Motors, alternative side-by-side; Edison2, mainstream; X-Tracer, alternative tandem. | Photo by Matthew Anderson (

Sidebar: Avion is still running

Avion is still running

Don Hayward takes one look under the hood of the sleek, modern car and frowns.

The longtime auto racing guru is staring at Viking 45, Western Washington University’s ultra-fuel-efficient entry in the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE competition, and he’s perplexed.

“What I saw was a wad of wires on top of some structure that I couldn’t understand,” Hayward would later recount. “I frankly thought that this car was not appropriate for this competition.”

This is the shakedown stage of the X PRIZE, when serious contenders are separated from also-rans. Hayward, a consulting engineer at Grand Am who notes stints with Rahal Letterman Racing and Ford Motor Company Racing on his resume, should know an also-ran when he sees one.

He begins listing the problems for the students gathered around: Occupants aren’t fully sealed from the engine compartment. There is no horn or windshield wiper. The complicated electrical system has several ground faults and not enough weatherstripping to prevent water from ruining the electronics or creating a shock hazard.

“It’s a pretty stressful experience, being ripped apart like that,” says Kyle Foley, the team’s crew chief, “but it’s also a really good learning experience.”

As far as Hayward is concerned, Western’s run in this four-year, $10-million competition is over. Of the 136 vehicles that began the contest, only 27 would move past the shakedown stage. WWU would not be among them, Hayward thought after grading Viking 45. But while he got a good look at the car, Hayward didn’t know the students who built it. They had no intention of going home.

After hearing Hayward’s report, the students look around at each other. It’s quiet for a second. Members of at least one rival team wonder if the students might soon be available to join their crews. Instead, the students pull out a huge whiteboard and begin listing each problem alongside the name of a team member assigned to take care of it. An hour later, 24 items are slated to be fixed.

“We’ve come this far, and if there’s an opportunity to keep going, we will,” says Leif Olsen, who celebrated his 23rd birthday at the team’s rental house flying a toy helicopter bought for him at the local Radio Shack. “I’ve never worked this hard in my life. You’ve got to be kind of crazy to not sleep to build a car.”

The members of the WWU X PRIZE Team had started assembling Viking 45 in December 2009, with less than five months to build their car and get it to Michigan. Working from the prototype Viking 40 they had built the year before, the students spent long hours in the shop getting Viking 45 ready for competition.

“It almost becomes an obsession; you don’t want to leave,” Foley says. “There’s not one guy who hasn’t bled over this car; I guarantee it.”

They named the car “Sheila,” deciding anything they spent this much time with had to have a name.

“An 18-hour day was a good day,” remembers Olsen, “because that meant I got to go home and actually sleep.”

The hours together have forged a trust that is evident in the way the students attack the to-do list. They dive in and out of the car, soldering wires, securing cables and adjusting suspension components.

Before long, the WWU team has overcome the laundry list of problems and cleared the shakedown stage.

They’ve also earned the respect of their fellow competitors.

“We watched them go through some really hard times, and they were true gentlemen about it, even though they were so young,” says Oliver Kuttner, head of the rival Edison2 team. “They are a class act.”

“They’re very passionate about it, and they’re very self-sacrificing,” adds Marques McCammon, the chief marketing officer for the Aptera team. “I watch their work ethic, I watch the way they interact with each other, and I’m impressed.”

Since Western’s Vehicle Research Institute was founded 35 years ago, its students have known much success. Their vehicles have set records in the Australian Outback, up Pike’s Peak and around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Students come from afar to attend the VRI, but for the most part they’re just local kids who love cars.

They enroll in the VRI to bang their knuckles under the hood of a car, to learn about teamwork and camaraderie, to test the limits of what’s possible with a set of wheels and an open mind.

That’s why Eric Leonhardt, the faculty director of the VRI, pushed his students to join this contest. The Progressive Automotive X PRIZE competition was designed to glean from the world’s inventors a vehicle that gets more than 100 miles per gallon, is relatively environmentally friendly and can be mass-produced for consumers.

“I can’t imagine any other way to bring these lessons home to these students,” Leonhardt says. “Technical lessons, interpersonal skills, time management, leadership – these are all things that we’ve learned here.”

They’ve done well, too, having outlasted all other U.S. universities, including Cornell University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and India auto giant Tata Motors. And thanks to that intense list-driven scramble during the semifinals, they breeze through the knockout stage, too.

A month later, members are back in Michigan for the finals.

The events, which include the 100-mile range test and several fuel efficiency trials, go well. On the track Viking 45 achieves the equivalent of 112 miles per gallon before penalties are assessed, bringing the total down to an impressive 97 MPGe. In range testing, Sheila easily goes the required 100 miles with enough fuel remaining for hundreds more. After making it this far, outlasting all other U.S. schools and many professional car builders, Viking 45 is looking like a contender for the top prize.

But on the penultimate day of the finals, during the emergency lane-change and 60-mpg-to-0 braking events, Sheila’s brakes fail and a few of her suspension mounting points start wobbling. Student driver Brent Wise is unable to maneuver the car through the events, and the WWU X PRIZE Team is finally eliminated from competition.

But it’s hard to say the WWU team lost. Out of the 136 vehicles in the opening round, Viking 45 made it to the final 10. The students proved their vehicle was viable, their ideas sound. And they proved that a bunch of kids from the Northwest could build a fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly vehicle that industry stalwarts would notice – including Hayward.

“I told the guys they’re the ones I admire the most in this contest.” Hayward says. “These are college kids, but they’re bright, hardworking college kids. They deserve some special recognition because of their tenacity, their work ethic and their ability to bring this thing home. Total dedication.”