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Wednesday, March 01, 2006


The High School Hybrid

CBS's tale of the students at West Philadelphia High School building a
hybrid sports car has been making the Internet rounds today. Their project is pretty impressive - a car that gets over 50 mpg, goes from 0 to 60 in around 4 seconds, and can run on soybean oil. Not bad for a concept car, and very impressive that high school students put it together. And it's probably a blast to drive.

Unfortunately, in a bit of sloppy reporting, CBS ends it by asking why the major automotive companies don't have anything like this in production, and then quotes a student who blames big oil companies. They just leave it there, without pointing out some other reasons why this car isn't likely to see production. Mostly, I don't think there is enough demand for it - a production model would be so expensive that buying it to reduce gas mileage compared to existing cars in the 30 to 40 mpg range makes almost no economic sense.

The reason that isn't clear from the CBS article is that they do not give any feel for what the car cost to build. Luckily, that's available from other sources. One article that gives a figure for the budget (and is very well worth reading in its own right) comes from the Philadelphia Inquirer, where they first quote the physics teacher involved as saying, "We're super low-budget," and that automakers "We're super low-budget," he said, so automakers "should be cranking them out." "Who wouldn't want a cool sports car hybrid?"

But reading on indicates that they estimate that there are "between $80,000 and $100,000 worth of parts in the car," and some of these may be secondhand. They were able to pull this off on a high school budget because some of the parts were donated, while a local oil company (yes, you read that right) provided some of the funding. The car it is based on is a K-1 Attack kit car, which retails for around $70,000 for a turnkey package. And there are no labor charges included, either. If this roadster were in volume production, it might very well come with a $120,000 price tag.

Another source of information on this project is the team's own web page, which includes a photo gallery and some movies. They also note that the hybrid system is mostly to provide maximum acceleration via a 200 hp electric motor. So a non-hybrid version might actually get better gas mileage and handle better. They also detail where they got the engine and electric motor; both are conventional, off the shelf parts.

It's a pretty cool car. However, it seems the CBS version of the story over-hypes it considerably.

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