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Automotive X Prize: Stress and triumph during the handling test

The Knockout phase of the Automotive X Prize delivered more blows and thrills, as remaining teams completed the required tests. After a long and stressful past few days, the teams all seemed thrilled to be returning home—at least when done by choice.

Consumer Reports ran several tests at different parts of the Michigan International Speedway, but it seemed that all eyes were on the emergency-avoidance maneuver test in the morning. Also known as a lane-change test, this event requires the cars enter a series of cones at 45 mph or higher, lift throttle, rapidly change lanes to the left, then return to the right without using the brakes, touching a cone, or creating drama.

Last session, this handling evaluation humbled many teams, and it was clear by the large spectator turnout that this was a chief concern for some competitors. Previously, the Aptera team struggled, ultimately needing 38 tries to pass. At the other end, the slender Tango zipped through like it was a straight line. The most surprising performance was with the Illuminati Motor Works primer-gray sedan. A long car, it was expected to be challenged, but with a four-wheel steering system and capable driver, the team made short work of it and boasted one of the highest speeds recorded during the competition.

The rules changed slightly for this session. Now, only 10 attempts were permitted. The figure shrinks quickly when you realize almost every team needs a couple of orientation passes; this test requires a little practice. And the speed must be precise. If you’re a tenth of a second too slow, it is a do over.

The X-Tracer team had two E-Tracers, essentially enclosed electric motorcycles that reminded me of the movie “Tron.” Being thin and agile, the E-Tracers helped this team to make quick work of the course.

Western Washington University had a bit more of a challenge with their student-designed sports car. WWU had a large contingent on hand, and the students felt the mounting pressure as the number of passes increased. Being a rear-drive vehicle, it was clear the driver was wrestling with oversteer, and he lost the battle once in a dramatic spin. Their car, the Viking 45, ultimately danced between the cones and earned the necessary “pass.”

The other remaining university team, Raceabout from Finland, ran through with their sleek, carbon-fiber sports car. Again, tensions mounted with each pass. A few passes are expected, but after the fifth fail, it became clear that if they don’t pass, they are out. With their chances running out, the car succeeded on the eighth attempt. And, as they say in most all sports, the crowd went wild.

The Zap Alias, with Al Unser, Jr., behind the wheel, conquered the test in a few passes. It looked slow going through, making it hard to believe it was done already. The car was planted and the driver smooth. I don’t think anyone stressed over this one.

And the sleek, fast, orange Tango passed on the first try.

Then it was time for Aptera. The team had made several tuning changes to the car since Shakedown to help them pass this test. Even so, it wasn’t a slam dunk. After the first few passes, the team was becoming visibly concerned. However, unlike last time when the car was clearly beyond its limits, this time it was more just a matter of getting the speed right. The team final triumphed with a high 47.63 mph.



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