Hot Car

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

When Mercedes Benz wanted to roll out their sporty new sedan in a blaze of glory, they called kVA Effects in Los Angeles for some high-voltage excitement. And when kVA director Jeff Parisse started thinking about fooling around with five million volts, he called Michigan Tech undergraduate Sam Barros.

Why summon a 23-year-old mechanical engineering major to help with a stunt involving roughly the same power as a thunderbolt? Barros has been tinkering with electricity since he was old enough to stick a fork in a socket. In his four years at Tech, he has built powerful accelerators known as rail guns and his own personal laser. He has been featured in Fortune magazine, on MTV and on Discovery Canada’s “The Daily Planet” and was tapped by “Fear Factor” to design and build an extra-scary electrical obstacle course.

This time, the current event would involve dazzling the media during the much-anticipated preview of the Mercedes E63AMG. Moderately tricked out, the sporty family sedan will set buyers back over $100,000. The unveiling was set for Wednesday, April 12, two days before the official kick-off of the New York International Auto Show.

"Sam's personality, his advanced interests and the relevance of his studies at Michigan Tech make him an extraordinarily valuable member of our team,” Parisse said. “We've been doing high-voltage special effects for a long time, and sometimes it's a good idea to get a fresh perspective. I trust Sam's opinion along with that of my senior engineers."

In this case, the special effect involved a super-size Tesla Coil. A metallic donut about the size of a truck tire, kVA’s Tesla Coil is the manmade equivalent of the arm of Zeus. Suspended from the ceiling, it can throw down a spark about the size of a bolt of lightning.

During the Mercedes stunt, the spark was first transmitted from the Tesla Coil to a chainmail-clad stunt man hanging in mid-air above the vehicle, courtesy of a power cable. “The charge goes from him to three dancers via a metal wand, and when they reach the car, they send a spark to the car,” Barros explains. Then, from out of the car, emerges the driver, a Mercedes executive.

You’d think that maybe someone would be collecting a handsome insurance settlement after a trick like this, but Barros, the technical advisor, was there in part to make sure that didn’t happen. All 5 million volts ran through the chainmail suits and not through the actors, he noted. Engineers were even concerned that all that amperage would short circuit the complex electronics in the Mercedes, but Barros assured them--correctly--that the car would be just fine.

When it all came together, the stunt was as spectacular as a thunderstorm in summer.

“I’m so happy,” Barros said afterward. “The installation and he trouble shooting were extremely difficult, and that made the show that much more satisfying. People were blown away; they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.”

Even at that, the journey was more fun than the destination.

“The team was awesome. I learned about things I’d never even seen before,” Barros said. “The stunt had never been tried before, and some people thought we couldn’t do it. But like my father says, everything is impossible until someone goes out and does it.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.