“Pure Genius”—Hostile Cars Shall Not Pass: Engineering a Roadside Check

Bobby Miller

With only four contestants remaining, the competition entered its second-to-last episode. Host Kal Penn announced that the teams would be taking on a dangerous, real-world problem this time around.

Many military stations have roadside checks where soldiers ensure that the vehicle going by does not have any dangerous weapons in it. If a car fails to stop at the gate, however, the soldiers on duty have no choice but to shoot it down. Sometimes innocent people fail to stop for a variety of reasons, resulting in needless deaths.

Nvate Big Brain Theory Pure Genius by Discovery Channel, innovation Mark Fuller, WET

This is an example of a gunned-down car.

So, the teams were asked to build a device that would be capable of stopping a car if it broke through the checkpoint, a gate that looks much like that found at a toll booth. It should be deployed automatically, allow the car to keep working and not harm the passengers. If a car safely stops at the checkpoint, the device should not activate.

This week will also result in two contestants being eliminated. There will be two remaining contestants per team, meaning that whichever team loses will have both its survivors eliminated. As Tom Johnson admitted online, he did not put much effort into the Blueprint Challenges since the first episode because it mostly just raised the contestants’ chance of being eliminated—I’ve pointed that out before. This week, however, he goes all out with a “Vehicle Ensnarement Device” that traps the car with a net. His plan earns him the spot as the runner-up team leader. Amy Elliott is the other team leader—for the fourth time this competition.

This week, the red team consisted of Johnson, Eric Whitman, Joe Caravella, Joel Ifill and Dan Moyers. The blue team consisted of Elliott, Corey Fleischer, Gui Cavalcanti, Andrew Stroup and Alison Wong. It’s worth noting that Elliott picked Fleischer first since he has been on the winning team in every competition. Fleischer has been the first person picked five times. And Moyers was, unsurprisingly, chosen last.

The teams have three days and $5,000 to build their devices.

The Red Team’s Preparation

Nvate Big Brain Theory Pure Genius by Discovery Channel, innovation Mark Fuller, WET

Johnson led the group by sticking with his Blueprint Challenge idea, but he is willing to take input from his team members. Basically, they have a net spring up when the gate is broken, ready to catch the car. Although Johnson originally wanted concrete blocks tied to the net, he decided to go with Moyer’s idea of tying the net to the brakes. The brakes will cause the net to slow the car down to a safe stop. The whole system is based on an aircraft carrier landing system.

As time winds down, Johnson is feeling tired and relatively nervous. Every possible way they could fail is floating through his mind. After all, if he loses this battle, he loses the war, as he says. However, they are able to shoot the net up successfully using latex tubing and elastic bands, so everything is in good shape. Johnson feels they have built something “adequate.”

The Blue Team’s Preparation

Elliott immediately pulled Fleischer aside and asked him to be the team’s co-leader because she’s confident in his abilities and she really wants to win the competition. Flattered, he agreed, especially since he has just as much at stake as she does.

The idea they end up adhering to even resembles Fleischer’s plan for a sled-like device to slow down the car. Their device will have a metal base, roughly the size of a car, that has a deployable wall at the front of it to stop a car. The wall is triggered if a speeding car breaks the gate. Since the car’s wheels are on the base instead of the ground, the base’s friction while sliding will slow it to a stop.

Nvate Big Brain Theory Pure Genius by Discovery Channel, innovation Mark Fuller, WET

The judges are concerned that stopping the car with a metal wall would be like it colliding with a big brick wall. Mark Fuller asks them if they’ve taken the G-force exerted on the passengers into account, and they assure him that they have. To lighten the device, though, Cavalcanti uses a plasma-cutter template to cut out unnecessary metal. It won’t weaken the device, but it will make it roughly 35 percent lighter. Although there is little concern over whether or not the wall deploys quickly enough, the passionate team finishes with an hour to spare.

The Test: Catch the Car

In the test, a “safe” car goes to the gate, stops, and then passes through once the gate is lifted. The devices should not activate for this car. Next, a “dangerous” car zooms through the gate and breaks it, causing the devices to activate. The “safe” car goes through both team’s devices properly—neither device triggered by accident. When the “dangerous” car goes through the red team’s gate, the net comes up and drags the car to a smooth, safe stop. It even stops where they predicted it would. When the “dangerous” car goes through the blue team’s gate, the wall shoots up, and the base of their “sled” is dragged 30 feet, bringing the car to a gradual stop.

Nvate Big Brain Theory Pure Genius by Discovery Channel, innovation Mark Fuller, WET

This is the red team's attempt.

Since both teams have succeeded, it’s up to the judges to decide which design was better. The G-force exerted on the passengers in each car was roughly equal, and both cars could still function, though the red team’s net damaged the car slightly less.

Fuller said that, in making the final decision, he asked himself who would be the “big brain engineer” he’d like to employ at WET, since that’s the winner’s fate. He announced that Elliott’s team has won because their design is innovative, something very important in this competition. Also, it could be built beforehand and quickly dropped off somewhere in a foreign or hostile environment. The red team’s device, though, had to be staked into the ground, which would make it difficult for sandy terrains. Plus, the brakes might fail to stop a large vehicle.

Elliott and Fleischer, the two remaining contestants, share a high-five and hug. Elliott believed her team’s device deserved to win because of its creative nature and pushing the boundaries of what we already have, which is the whole point of this competition.

Although Whitman and Johnson are still in the running for the Judge’s Award, which will go to whoever shows the best work ethic, contributions and teamwork, they aren’t happy with the decision. Whitman believes they did their absolute best. Johnson feels his team was “absolutely robbed by something inefficient, complicated, expensive and clumsy.” He even said the “cutesy” design “offends [him] as an engineer.” He strongly prefers his “simple, elegant and proven” design.

Nvate Big Brain Theory Pure Genius by Discovery Channel, innovation Mark Fuller, WET

These are the finalists.

Although I can see where he’s coming from, Elliott was right in saying that this competition is supposed to be your chance to show yourself off as a clever engineer. Plus, as the judge pointed out, his design took a while to set up and would be difficult to use on all types of terrains.

In the final episode, we’ll figure out who wins the competition—Elliott or Fleischer. Their challenge will be to replace a bridge that has just exploded. It will take clever design, good time management, effective leadership skills and solid teamwork to come out on top. Elliott has shown her ingenuity by winning many Blueprint Challenges, and she has proven herself as a team leader numerous times. I believe she will be the winner.

To watch the full seventh episode, visit the “Pure Genius” website.

Also, all the episodes can be purchased individually for $1.99 on the show’s official YouTube page.

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