Wired Magazine: The Progressive Automotive X Prize

The dream machine: Team Tri-Hybrid

If the goal of the X Prize is to get innovation unstuck from the grip of conventional wisdom, Jay Perdue is an industrial-sized tube of cognitive lubricant. The Memphis, Tennessee, inventor is already a successful entrepreneur in his own right. He holds a slew of patents in acoustic materials and runs a large business manufacturing ceiling and wall tiles. But he’s also kind of a goofball. His X Prize entry isn’t his first run at an alternative vehicle; there was the Pedal Paddle, a bicycle with a small 1.6-horsepower gas-motor assist system and two fold-out pontoons that allow it to cross both land and water. In 2004, he rode it all the way across America.

“I did a stupid thing to prove my invention worked,” Perdue says. “I am accredited as being the first person in history to cross the United States of America on both land and water on the same vehicle. It was an insane thing to do. I should have died a hundred times, in 25 incredibly creative ways.”

Perdue spent 49 days criss-crossing the nation, covering some 4,000 miles on his odd contraption while spending equal time on land and water. And in the process, he had an epiphany about the future of transport.

“I’m chugging on the side of the road, and mostly it would be dirty diesel trucks coming by making it almost impossible for me to breathe,” he explains. “It just got me to thinking two thoughts. One is that, golly, this pollution thing is real! And then number two was, man, you can really get somewhere if you combine a little human power and a little bit of gasoline help.”

Perdue’s roadside revelation led him to conceive the Tri-Hybrid Stealth, named after the iconic military plane to which it bears a passing resemblance. The car goes from zero to 60 in just under ten seconds; not fast, but not exactly slow either. Better yet, in its first long-distance test run it averaged a stunning 300mpg, topping out at 320mpg. Of course, that figure will drop as he increases the car’s maximum speed: Perdue hopes to have it running at up to 100mph or better.

More to the point, the Stealth may have the most unique drive-train in the competition, running, as it does, on a high-compression diesel engine, an electric engine and human legs – hence the name, Team Tri- Hybrid. All three drive the rear wheel of the vehicle. The diesel engine runs constantly, while the electric motor runs intermittently to boost speed or climb hills – similar to the way the electric assist works in a Honda Civic Hybrid drive-train. The pedals exist as an option to give the car a little extra boost – pedalling can contribute an additional five per cent or so of power to the drive-train. Five per cent doesn’t sound like very much, but Perdue takes issue with that criticism – it’s clearly something he’s got used to hearing.

“I kind of chuckle sometimes whenever the engineers and people in the car business say the human effort is only five to ten per cent of the energy. And yet the very same engineers will tell you that every time the auto industry makes a five to ten per cent increase in fuel economy, it’s ground-shaking. So it’s like, give me a break. Which is true? Is it significant or is it not?”

Perdue sees the Stealth not simply as a chance to solve the problem of pollution and oil dependence, but also as an opportunity to tackle another problem of our times: the obesity epidemic. A recent study by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that two-thirds of Americans are either obese or overweight, and that obesity-related problems account for one-quarter of healthcare spending in the US. Perdue thinks he has an answer.

“Ninety to 95 per cent of Americans who own home fitness equipment or a [health club] membership don’t use either one. Neither one. So you’re paying for equipment, you’re paying for memberships and you never go and never use it. It boils down to the only logical thing I can conclude: that it’s a factor of time,” explains Perdue. “So think about it. If you could exercise on the way to work or the way home from work, it’s already built into your day. So let’s say you don’t want to arrive at work all sweaty; don’t do it. Don’t touch the pedals at all on the way to work. On the way home, get a good cardio and then jump in the shower. And you’ve got all that time still for your kids, your wife, your family, whatever you want to do, because you get [exercise] on the way home. And that’s my sermon on that deal. It’s like, golly! Everybody knows we need exercise; nobody’s getting it!”

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