Discovery Channel says they're seeking America's top inventors, machinists and engineers to compete for a huge grand prize, in their new show: Top Engineer.

Of course, you don't have to be an engineer to compete in this new show. Any kind of techie will do. So long as you have an outgoing personality and look good on camera, you're gold. Just send an email to with your name, age, location, phone number, a recent photo and a brief explanation of why you are perfect for this competition show. Do it right away—because the deadline is March 7.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let me ask this question: Do you think there is any chance whatsoever that the people producing this show (Pilgrim Studios) have any clue about what an engineer is?

I personally doubt it. They're looking for good theater. Most of the time, real engineering isn't good theater.

Consider, as an example, one of Pilgrim Studios' earlier shows: American Chopper. Quite a few companies in the engineering business have had Orange County Choppers (the company on which the show is based) build them custom choppers. One that comes to mind is Siemens.

The “Siemens Smart Chopper,” an electric motorcycle, was featured on the American Chopper TV show in 2009. It also showed up on the Conan O'Brien Show, and on Fox and Friends. Siemens got a lot of great publicity from it, hauling it around to various venues, and taking pictures of people sitting on it. It is a great looking bike.

But it isn't great engineering. If you looked under the hood (so to speak), you'd see that it used a standard series-wound brush type DC motor (not from Siemens), and a half dozen DieHard sealed lead-acid batteries. Siemens, in their spec sheet for the chopper, notes that it weighs 700 pounds. They claim it has a top speed of 100mph and a range of 60 miles.

A reasonable estimate is that the Siemens Smart Chopper has 5.4kwh of energy storage. Siemens claims 27 peak horsepower—which is probably about right. With a 72 volt power supply, continuous power would be in the range of 17 to 18hp. I suspect that the published specs are wildly optimistic for both top speed and range.

Contrast the Siemens Smart Chopper with the Mission R Electric Superbike, from Mission Motors:

Piloted by Steve Rapp, the Mission R won the 2011 FIM/TTXGP U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca, finishing the 8-lap race 39.9 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher. Rapp’s qualifying lap time of 1:31.3 broke all previous electric vehicle records at Laguna Seca. Had the Mission R been competing in the weekend’s gasoline-powered AMA Pro Supersport category, it would have qualified in 5th place.

Photo: Jensen Beeler

The Mission R has 14kwh of swappable energy storage and a 100kw (141 horsepower) liquid-cooled 3-phase AC induction motor. It has an integrated vehicle management system, with WiFi & 3G data connectivity and regenerative braking. It goes from zero to 60 in 3 seconds, and has a top speed of over 160mph. It weighs 545 pounds, which is plenty heavy for a superbike, but is still far lighter than the Siemens Smart Chopper—despite having over double the energy storage, and over 5 times the horsepower.

What's more of a contrast than the motorcycles is the teams involved in building them:

The Orange County Choppers team is composed of some very talented artists, designers, fabricators, machinists and mechanics. And, according to their website, one mechanical engineer, who apparently spends most of his time as a machinist.

The Mission Motors team is composed of at least 24 engineers (including specialists in software, mechanical, batteries, manufacturing, vehicle systems, electrical, and powertrain systems engineering), plus a PhD electrochemist.

I doubt that the engineers at Mission Motors could hold a candle to the team at Orange County Choppers when it comes to fabricating one-off motorcycles. But, if the challenge is to truly engineer a motorcycle, the story is going to be different.

Fabricating and engineering are two very different things. Too bad TV producers haven't figured that out.

My bet is that Discovery's Top Engineer show is going to be more about fabrication than real engineering. I'd be surprised if the participants on the show, much less the winner, are actually chosen based primarily on their engineering skills.

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Comment by Alyssa Sittig on March 5, 2012 at 11:28am

What a cool idea! I love watching Top Chef, Project Runway, etc, all those reality shows that feature people with a a skill! Why not add engineering to the mix?

Comment by Phil Jones on March 5, 2012 at 8:33am

I want to see the final design conform to all the applicable safety standards and show the endless meetings with marketing that established the specifications.


I can see the first thing out of their mouths..."What is a safety standard?"


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