Jason Fagone has written a book about invention, and amid declining car culture and tales of new urbanism, he’s used that lingering American ideal of the automobile as his back drop.
To promote the release of “Ingenious,” he’s kicking off a 12-stop East Coast book tour, which includes as many coffee shops as maker spaces, including a stop next Sunday at the Hacktory at 3pm with a 207 miles per gallon car on site.
The book has its origins in the 2007 X Prize, which put $10 million on the line for the best, mass-producible car that could travel 100 miles or more on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas.
In it, Fagone (that’s three syllables, not two) follows four of those teams, including the celebrated West Philly Hybrid X team that has spun out into the Sustainability Workshop alternative high school.
Fagone, 35, who lives in Havertown in Delaware County with his mapmaker-wife Dana Bauer, who co-runs the local Hacks/Hackers meetup, is among the region’s most successful freelance writers today, contributing to GQ, Esquire, Wired and Philadelphia magazine. He clearly likes the deep subculture that lies beneath glossy Americana, considering his last book was on competitive eating.
With ‘Ingenious,’ Fagone is tapping into the surge of popularity for an otherwise ageless maker culture, which is beginning to shine again with help from Internet and software community cool. One of the teams he follows is a family that is hand-crafting their creation in an old barn.
The stakes are a lot higher, though. Unlike with a software crash, in a car crash, you can die, as Fagone quotes Tesla cofounder Martin Eberhard as having said.
Fagone, who presented on the subject at the last Ignite Philly, follows four hopeful teams in the chronology you’d expect: in the run up to the finals of the competition, who will win and what the industry impact will be. (Spoiler Alert: the West Philly high school team can’t give up its bake sales yet, and you can’t buy a 207 mpg car from the lot today).
If Fagone makes clear he isn’t a “car guy” in his intro and says his book is more about innovation than engines, then it must be said the vehicles he covers are at least primary characters.
Those characters are a window into what American ingenuity can be and they remind us of what modern entrepreneurship-crazed economic development looks like: cultivate hobbyist tinkering until it flourishes into widespread change (a big pile of money to incentivize them helps).
The bigger point may be around the challenge of weighing the likelihood of impact against the sheer inevitability of societal trends.
Do the little innovators and glitzy sideshow competitions change how we consume by challenging industry norms and educating more of the buying public (as it seems Fagone argues)? Or are there too many factors at play to look at one. Perhaps changes to climate and with generations and lifestyle will dictate success in a car industry ready for disruption more than new ideas for aerodynamics.
That’s something Ingenious takes on, and something the cult of invention has always been challenged by, long before the car ever came to being.