PHILADELPHIA - Standing in a garage on a West Philadelphia backstreet, Stefon Gonzalez is sure his team can win a $10 million prize to build the best super-efficient, mass-production hybrid car.
Gonzalez isn't an engineer, an academic or an executive from an automaker. He is a 15-year-old student at West Philadelphia High School who is part of a student team that is hoping to win the top prize in the prestigious international Progressive Automotive X Prize competition.
Students at the school's Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering have previously won a series of national awards for building cars that are not only extremely fuel efficient, but are also reliable, quick and even stylish.
Now, they are going for the big one -- the Automotive X Prize. It requires entrants to build cars that can do at least 100 miles per gallon, can be produced in quantities of at least 10,000, and are safe and reliable. The West Philly Hybrid X team is the only high school competitor in a field of about 90 teams from the U.S. and overseas.
I know we're going to win, said Gonzalez. We've got a good history of winning competitions and we've got the engineering background and the experience.
In 2002, 2005 and 2006, the team won the Tour de Sol, a competition for production hybrid or bio-diesel vehicles to drive at least 150 miles (xx km)at the energy equivalent of 100 miles per gallon or better. On its first attempt, it beat 40 other teams, including one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
This time, their rivals include a team from Cornell University, an alliance of engineers from Ottawa and Silicon Valley, and a group led by an inventor whose credits include voice-recognition software for the BlackBerry.
The field will be reduced by about half on October 19 -- a cut the Philly team is confident of surviving. The final winner will be decided in 2010.
Simon Hauger, the academy's director since its inception in 1998, said the idea that high school kids from a poor inner-city neighborhood can beat such heavyweight competition is not so strange when you consider the ability of teenagers to think outside the box.
Teens believe they can do anything, he said.
The students saw the gasoline/electric Toyota Prius at a 2003 competition, and came up with the idea of building a hybrid that would meet high fuel-consumption standards while also being fast and cool-looking.
The result was the Hybrid Attack, a low-slung, aerodynamically designed sports car that can go from zero to 60 miles an hour in four seconds and gets 60 miles per gallon of bio-diesel on the highway.
We didn't design the car to win but to break the stereotype of what a hybrid car could be, Hauger said. But the car did win, taking top place in the Tour de Sol in 2005 and 2006.
The competition entries are an outgrowth of the academy's beginning, which was to train students in basic automotive maintenance so that they can get a job after leaving school.
The 10 to 15 students that form a typical class at the academy get classroom instruction in basic automobile functions and they apply the skills to the more glamorous business of building competition-winning cars. Students must have good grades in their regular academic work to enter, and stay in, the program.
Even without their cutting-edge activities, the students are acquiring skills that should allow them to escape the poverty and crime of the neighborhood that surrounds them, and to avoid joining the more than 40 percent of Philadelphia public high school students who don't graduate, said team coordinator Ron Preiss.
It's a typical inner-city high school, Preiss said. Most of our students are on free or reduced lunches.
Chris Millsip, a 17-year-old in his third year with the academy, wants to go to a technical college in Ohio to learn more about building hybrids.
The Prius, it's OK, he said. But it needs to go faster.