10 Questions For Illuminati's Kevin Smith

By AutoObserver Staff February 18, 2011

Illuminati Motors Kevin Smith.jpg

Kevin Smith founded Illuminati Motor Works in 2007, intending to develop an entry for the $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize competition for a 100-miles-per-gallon car. He'd initially planned to build a hybrid car but instead developed the Seven, the battery-electric four-seater that competed in the competition’s Mainstream class. Except for the gull-wing doors, it could be mistaken for a postmodern homage to Studebaker.

Smith’s dad, uncles, and grandfather had always worked on cars, and even before he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the mid-1990s, he had wanted to work on the school’s solar car project. He met the solar car team members at a Tinkertoy bridge competition during Engineers Week. Impressed with his entry, they admitted him to their skunkworks. “It was a small group,” Smith recalls, “four or five guys at a large university, building this car on their own, and that’s what got me into the efficiency-tech side of the automotive industry.”

A chemical engineering graduate, Smith works as an analyst for Illinois' state Environmental Protection Agency, reviewing air permit applications from steel mills, grain handling facilities and power plants.

He recently sat down with AutoObserver Green to discuss what the future holds for Illuminati, and his team's run at the X-Prize – they came in just out of the money in 2nd place in the mainstream car category with a 3,155-pound electric car that achieved the fuel economy equivalent of 182 miles per gallon (182 MPGe). -- Ronald Ahrens

Auto Observer (AO): What lit you up about the X Prize? Were you gunning for that exclusively, or had you been developing your car beforehand?

Kevin Smith (KS): Gunning for that exclusively. I’d been just working at the EPA and going, “I’m bored.” I found some friends that were also bored and we decided we could build this car. Originally we were going to do a series-hybrid design. We thought, “OK, well, if our numbers are right, we should easily be able to meet 100 mpg with the 200-mile range that they’re looking for with a hybrid and still meet the emissions standards.” We got accepted to the competition in September of 2007 [and then] we decided we were going pure electric instead of hybrid because we couldn’t find an engine for the hybrid that would meet our needs and the competition's emission requirements.

AO: How was Illuminati Motor Works itself conceived? Was that an after-effect of the whole X Prize effort?

KS: It was in combination, really. We had to come up with a team name. All of us who started the project, and most of us still on the team now, work for the State of Illinois. The grand conspiracy known as the Illuminati is supposed to have hidden the 100-mpg carburetor, and we were in the 100-mpg race. It was a nice, tongue-in-cheek, joke-type thing, and also educational.

AO: How was your X Prize experience?

KS: What a harrowing adventure! We pushed the car onto the trailer the morning we were supposed to be in Michigan for the Shakedown phase. We had just worked through two nights straight. They kept the track open so we could drop the car off. We took a few parts with us and worked in the hotel room to have all the electronics working by the next morning - which we didn’t accomplish. It was one thing after another. That was the first three to four days of the Shakedown: trying to chase down these issues and pass technical inspection. Everyone was really worried and upset. We had unending problems. We got everything working well enough to pass technical and make it to the track phase. But then we had issues on the track. These guys on the team, and my wife, were a bit emotional at times because we had worked so hard and things were looking bad. I just had to keep saying, “Hey, guys, come one. We’ve beat worse than this before. We’ll be fine.”

AO: What was your takeaway from the X Prize?

KS: We were pretty proud of what we had done. The team overall was glad that we came out so well in the Mainstream class, basically placing right behind Oliver [Kuttner, whose Edison2 Very Light Car won the $5 million]. Our clutch burned out. There were a lot of mixed emotions about that, [but] that stuff happens all the time in race cars. We were really hoping to make it to the Finals and push the envelope of what the automobile can do. Our car was quite a bit larger and heavier than Oliver’s, and we were still getting incredible mileage. We wanted to show that you could do this with a heavy, full-sized vehicle, that you didn’t necessarily have to have a lightweight vehicle and a huge budget. We built our car for a little over 100 grand from the ground up. We were one of the vehicles that got invited to D.C. [for the award ceremony].

AO: What have you done since September, when you returned from Washington, D.C.?

KS: On a closed track with a professional driver, we tested the top speed of the vehicle, which is 130 mph. We’ve balanced our battery pack to improve performance. We’ve tried to minimize the connections, made improvements there. We bolted our clutch together so it will no longer slip. We’re going to make improvements on the drivetrain, change the transmission. We’re working on the aerodynamics. We did our own coast-down test. The drag (a measurement of aerodynamic resistance, directly related to fuel economy) is about 0.239.

AO: That's quite streamlined! Better than a Toyota Prius. How did you shape the body?

KS: We knew we wanted a certain elliptical front end with a taper on the back. We were like, “Look, the front end’s going to look like a Volkswagen Bug or an old Porsche no matter what we do.” Every time we drew it, it looked like this funky, long Volkswagen Bug, so we nicknamed it La Cucaracha.

AO: Has production of the car for sale ever been the goal?

KS: Yes and no. Using the guidelines from the X Prize, we did our business plan and followed through with what it would take as far as planning for production, but we don’t have the abilities or the financial backing. Our first stage was just to get to the X Prize and show what we could do, and then, we hoped, move to the next stage of production.

AO: Take me through the itinerary and purpose of the Seven’s recent road trip.

KS: It was a Sustainability Week event at the University of Illinois. We were asked to tow one of the entries, the Rocket Trike, to the campus at Champaign from Springfield.. We had no idea whether the Seven would make it as a tow car. My wife thought I was nuts. No place to stop and charge the batteries, no chase vehicle. So I drove into town and picked up the Rocket Trike and its rider, Tom Weis. Our trip was a little over 100 miles. Three guys in the car, loaded up with all the equipment Weis had with him. We averaged 138 MPG-equivalent with a full car and towing a trailer, and that was in high winds. We made it to Champaign, and we’re like, “Woo-hoo! We made it, and we’re still at six-percent charge!”

AO: You’re going to shoot for Guinness Book of World Records categories in the spring?

KS: I’ve driven the car about 2,400 miles since September. We realized a lot higher efficiency than we got on the track at Michigan. We thought, “Well, what kind of records are out there?” We want to say we set a Guinness world record at this [and] do it at X Prize standards: four-seat, street-legal, 100 MPGe, even at top speed. We can go over 100 mph while averaging 100 MPGe and have four people in the vehicle. We will be defining new categories and setting records for some existing ones: efficiency, range, tow capacity -- everything that you’d want in a standard vehicle. We want to do 0 to 60 times, quarter-mile, anything that we can think of.

AO: As someone who’s gotten his hands dirty and greasy on this project, what do you think about the EV industry today?

KS: We’re going to have to spend some more money on it. If you want to switch over to EVs, it’s more expensive right now. The battery technology, I believe, is just about here. I would be careful with the lithium-ion batteries. You’re putting them out there for 100 million people to use, and there’s the potential for 100 million different ways of breaking them. But I believe the battery technology is here. I believe that the government needs to set the mileage standards higher. I would start at nothing less than 45 or 50 MPGe as an average. I used to think that it’s very difficult to get 100 MPGe. That’s why the auto companies haven’t done it. It’s very difficult. There’s not enough incentive yet. But now that we have done it, and other teams have done it and far exceeded that number, the only reasons I can think that the auto makers are not doing it is either because they don’t want to or because they haven’t hired us yet!

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