Boyz Under The Hood

Inspired by a renegade teacher, the kids at Philly's toughest high school are building green cars to save the environment ? and themselves.

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Even among the roughest schools in the country, West Philadelphia High School stands out. Situated among boarded-up abandoned buildings and graffiti-covered crack houses, the school has had dozens of arson fires. A Spanish teacher was beaten bloody with a fire extinguisher. A music instructor got a broken jaw after being slugged by a pupil for trying to take away a cell phone. One 15-year-old girl was left for dead after having her face slashed while waiting for her school bus. She survived, but needed 114 stitches.

But in the automotive shop class in a garage next door, a group of African-American students and their scrappy white teacher are making their school famous for something else: building the world's greenest car. Kids in baggy jeans and sideways hats mill around a sleek purple car they built that runs on biodiesel. Sparks fly from a chainsaw as one boy cuts through an aluminum plate, his long afro held back by the strap of his scuffed goggles.

Behind a windowed wall, half a dozen girls are busy at their iMacs. Samantha Wright — a wry18-year-old in long plaid shorts, white t-shirt and black Converse sneakers — boots up a solar charging station she designed using an image of a rundown Philadelphia parking lot from Google Earth, and augmented it with green roofs and cars. "The photoactive panels convert the sunlight into direct energy," she explains, pointing to a carport onscreen, "We're changing the world, man. I have never expected to be doing that."

Like the other kids in the shop, Wright, the daughter of a phone sex worker and absentee dad, overcame incredible odds to find a haven here at the Electric Vehicle X Club, an after-school program that has been turning these cars and kids around, and that's not all. While Washington and Detroit hit the skids on delivering alternative fuel cars for the masses, these inner city teens are churning out some of the most badass and competitive eco-wheels on the planet for as little as $15000. As the blog Treehugger puts it, they're "sending a message to the major US auto manufacturers: if we can do it, why can't you?"

In addition to clocking their suburban opponents at state science fairs, the EVX Club has crushed colleges and high-financed corporate start-ups with back-to-back titles in the coveted Northeast Sustainable Energy Association's Tour De Sol, a prestigious eco-car challenge. They modified a Saturn to run on soybean fuel, and transformed a Slovakian kit car into a wildly sporty hybrid called the Hybrid X. "Hybrids don't have to be slow and ugly like a Prius," says 18-year-old EV member, Lawrence Jones-Mahoney. "They can be efficient and cool."

Now the team is racing to prove their cars — and themselves — to the world. They're the dark horse entrants in the Progressive Automotive X-Prize: a worldwide contest to build a car, suitable for mass production, that gets 100 miles per gallon. The contest runs through summer 2010, and the winner gets $10 million. The kids have major competition: over 120 grown-up professional teams including Tesla Motors, the team of dot com moguls behind a flashy electric Roadster supercar, to Neil Young, who's entering his Linc Volt. Car geeks rank West Philly High in the top 10 X-Prize teams to take the trophy.

Simon Hauger, the 38-year-old neighborhood hero who runs the West Philly High auto school, is working overtime with his students to win. But the checkered flag is theirs. "The fact that we've come this far," Hauger says, looking around the room, "we've already won."

The Bad News Bears story of the EVX team starts with their unlikely mentor, Hauger. With his salt-and-pepper hair and stained shorts and sandals, he has scruffy good looks of a California lifeguard. Wright joking calls him "our Baywatch administrator." But, as they all know and respect, his street-cred runs deep.

Hauger grew up as one of the only white kids in West Philly, after his divorced hippie dad moved him and his younger brother there in the early 1970s. He was raised just a few blocks from West Philly High and became street savvy and scrappy. But when the time came for high school, his father moved the family to another neighborhood to avoid having to send him there. Hauger couldn't stay away for long. After graduating with an engineering degree from Drexel University, he got assigned to teach math and science at West Philly High School. He returned to find the neighborhood in worse shape than ever. Crack vials littered the streets. Metal detectors stood at the entrance of the school. A kid got shot in a classroom down the hall. "I was scared to death," he recalls.

It got worse when Hauger was transferred to the West Philadelphia High School Academy for Automotive and Mechanical Engineering next door. Since Auto, as its nicknamed, launched in 1992, it had become a dumping ground for the worst of the worst students from the main building. Hauger didn't know much about cars, beyond fixing up his junky Fiat . The kids tested him off the bat, telling him to fuck off and threatening to kick his ass. Hauger quickly found respect by both standing up to them, and, more importantly, showing them he cared. "The teachers in the main building didn't care about us," says Wright, "but Hauger did."

Hauger quickly realized that the Auto school, in fact, was housing of some of the smartest kids around. The Auto shop also had a woolly former Air Force mechanic turned car geek nicknamed the Professor, and a philosophy-quoting body shop genius. Inspired by what he found Hauger began trying to turn Auto around. When a go-kart was donated to the school, Hauger decided to start an after-school science group that would work on building electric motor for the kart. He called it the Electric Vehicle Club. One by one, kids trickled in after school — gang members, drug dealers. One kid had a 150 IQ, but a mom on crack and a dad dying of AIDS. The kid was bouncing between foster homes, and stealing credit cards on the side. But when Hauger slapped a wrench in the kid's hand, he transformed. "When he would work on project, he would block out all the crap in his life," Hauger recalls, "and he became a mad scientist. Working on this made all the math and science hands on."

West Philly High School, which had never placed in the city science fair before, took second out of 600 projects with its electric go-kart. "As a teacher, it motivated me that this kind of incredible success was possible," Hauger says, "and it motivated the kids. For the first time, this school had a success."

As word of Hauger's club spread, kids got turned on not only by getting under the hood, but by making cars that can better the planet — and busting labels along the way. "There's a stereotype that urban kids are just violent and don't care about anything," says Wright, "but we know the environment is important, and we can do something about it."

For the EV club's next project, they modified a silver Jeep Wrangler to go electric. Clueless how to proceed, they hit the Net — downloading instructions from an obscure eco-geek magazine called Mother Earth. With Hauger guiding them and improvising plenty, they ripped out the gas engine and stored 217 lead acid batteries in a custom aluminum casing. When they drove their electric hot rod Jeep into the city's science fair of microscopes and Bunsen burners, jaws dropped. "The judges didn't know what to do with it," Hauger recalls. Then they gave West Philly High the top prize.

Despite their new achievements, old prejudices remained. Now representing the city of Philadelphia, the EV team drove their electric Jeep to the state science fair where they were the only all-black team out of 15 entrants. The judge only spoke with the kids for a few minutes, before ranking the kids in fifth place. When Hauger approached the judge after the show, she told him "it's obvious the kids didn't do the project."

Hauger was floored. They'd spent months on the thing. If the judges thought they cheated, then why did they rank them fifth instead of fifteenth — or not at all? He demanded to see the top judge, and urged the judge to go question the kids himself. "It's too late," the judge replied, "sometimes people get tough breaks."

"You motherfucker," Hauger snapped, "you don't understand the first thing about tough breaks." Hauger broke the news to the kids, who were devastated. "They had worked so hard, they didn't take it well at all," he now recalls. After spending countless after school days with the ID thief on his team, the kid repaid Hauger by stealing his credit card one day and downloading porn on his tab. Hauger was crushed. "I felt in some ways I had failed them," he says, "and I was totally unprepared for that."

The EVX team came back stronger than ever. They created a hybrid electric Saturn, which won best project at the Philadelphia Science Fair, and modified the Jeep with a hybrid electric and propane motor — taking a top prize at the Tour de Sol, and making history as the competition's first all-black entrants. Using a Boeing wind tunnel, they improved the aerodynamics of the electric Saturn, clocking colleges and corporations to win first place overall in the Tour de Sol of 2002, being awarded both the Greenest Light Duty Vehicle and Most Efficient Light Duty Vehicle.

Dr. Robert Wills, founder of the Tour De Sol competition, credits the EVX team with being more than a heartwarming story. "They have good engineering and workmanship," he says, "they also never give up. They have an incredibly positive attitude."

And a wizardly teenage one too. Thinking that most hybrid cars looked lame, the team persuaded Hauger to order the Slovakian K-1 kit car so that they could outfit with a hybrid engine. "Let's make the first badass hybrid car!" Jones-Mahoney said. With the help of a volunteer college student, they talked the Slovakians into making them a custom carbon fiber frame instead of the usual fiberglass to lighten the load. The car arrived at the school in a crate along with nine instructional DVDs in Slovakian. Hauger and the kids chucked those aside, and fired up the welding torches.

Using the Attack kit at the core, they beefed up the performance by creating a hybrid engine of a 1.9 liters turbo-diesel Volkswagen engine and 200 horsepower electric motor. To keep down the weight, they powered the electric motor with a slim 200 pound 450 volt ultra-capacitor pack. By powering the rear wheels by the diesel engine, they could use the battery pack's energy almost purely for acceleration — a lightning 0 to 60 in under four seconds. Overall, the Hybrid Attack, as they dubbed it, pulled off 50 miles per gallon, with 300 horsepower. And it was all done for less than $15,000.

The Hybrid Attack took the Tour De Sol top prize three years in a row, and made the kids heroes of the neighborhood — and car geeks around the world — symbolic of the power of perseverance, and a massive challenge to the sluggish minds in Detroit. "The best part is this super-hybrid didn't come from the Big 3 or some obscure Euro supercar maker, it's the work of high school kids," effused Autoblog, "Mad props to these kids for giving a new meaning to 'pimpin' my ride.'"

As the current 15 kids on the EVX team mill around the garage, talk turns to the plans for the Auto X prize. "As crazy as it sounds, I think we have a shot at winning," Hauger says. While the competition is focusing on high-priced cars that look like the Jetsons, the EVX team is taking a decidedly more accessible — and they hope — winning approach.

The team is making two models of a plug-in hybrid, they're calling the Environmental Vision X or EVX. At the core of each is a seven-kilowatt battery pack using advanced lithium technology. This will power powering a 65 HP Azure Dynamics electric motor in parallel with a two-cylinder engine, one diesel/biodiesel and one gasoline/ethanol/biobutanol.

The kicker is the chassis: Each will be built on the 2008 Ford Focus chassis. "It's a less expensive way to go and the easiest way to pass safety," says Hauger, "Our opinion is that the American consumer has an idea of what a car looks like and if you go too far outside that, you won't have a successful business plan." Azeem Hill, a 14-year-old on the team, is hoping they get the estimated $615,000 in donations they need to begin. "I want to prove to the world that kids from West Philadelphia can do feats like this."

Sixteen-year-old Sowande Gay, a short kid with a giant afro, grew up in Southwest Philly with a passion for hiking and animals. He was also a diehard car geek, and sees the EV club as a way to marry both passions. "I like nature, and I don't want to see the woods disappear," Gay says, "I want to make cars that will make the world a better place."

As the kids file out of the shop at the end of the day, they high-five Hauger, and when the last leaves, his eyes well up. "I'm leaving the school," he tells me, "the kids don't know yet."

While Hauger has been building up the EVX team, he's been fighting bloody battles with the school board behind the scenes. For three years, he developed a plan to transform the Auto Academy into its own official high school, with all the added budgets and teachers that would go along with it. Though he was able to score $3 million in renovations — including new computers and a lunchroom for hot food — the deal fell apart. "Bureaucracies are brutal to people who are trying to accomplish something," he says, "I gave up on that dream."

Hauger is taking a job as principal of another school, where he hopes to get similar projects off the ground. But he's committed to helping EVX team finish the job for the Auto X prize before he goes. The EVX team's legacy is already spreading among those in the eco-car pursuit. "It's inspiring that a contest can inspire a group like that to compete," says Darryl Siry, spokesperson for Tesla, "it says something about who they are. I recommend they not listen to people who tell them this is how it's done. Innovation comes from figuring out solution and answer to problem in new ways."

"Their story tells an important part of innovation: that everyone is involved in doing something about energy efficiency today," says Don Foley, the executive director of the Auto X-Prize, If high school kids can get involved then it sends a strong message that everyone else can be too."

Hauger takes me in a spin in the Hybrid Attack through his old neighborhood. A guy in camouflage pants sees us and his jaw drops as we come to a red light. "Whoa!" The guy exclaims, "What's that car?"

"It's the car they built in the high school," Hauger says.

"That's all right, man!" The guy says, high-fiving Hauger, "that's all right!"

Hauger hits the gas, and takes off. "It sounds cheesy but it's true: with the right support kids can accomplish great things," he says, "It doesn't have to be building a car, it can be anything."

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