Competition has a way of bringing out the best in people. If there is a gauntlet that you think needs picking up, start by throwing it down. The Automotive X Prize has done just that.In 1919, hotelier Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 prize for the first nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris, a challenge ultimately met by Charles Lindbergh in 1927. Within months of the flight, aircraft and airfield construction boomed in the U.S.
We’re reminded of this by Mark Goodstein, executive director of the Automotive X Prize. This group plans to award a multimillion-dollar purse to teams that win a series of races in a production-ready vehicle capable of exceeding 100 mpg. The X Prize people hope that a boom in practical, high-mileage cars will surely follow.
The real question might be whether it is possible to build a winning entry for less money than the prize.
In This Contest, 100 mpg Is the Easy Part
The first X Prize was announced in 1995, a $10 million award to the first non-governmental organization to achieve space flight in a reusable craft. It was won on October 4, 2004, by SpaceShipOne, built by Mojave Aerospace Ventures. Now the X Prize group has focused its attention on the need for mainstream, mass-produced cars capable of extraordinary fuel mileage.
While it isn’t terribly hard to build a vehicle that will propel itself 100 miles on only a gallon of gas, the X Prize rules call for a car that can carry four adults and sip gas while traversing all kinds of terrain and negotiating real-world traffic. And the car builder must demonstrate that the vehicle can be profitably offered for sale in volumes of 10,000 units in a form that meets federal crash safety and emissions requirements. If this weren’t enough, the competition really is a race, because the money goes to the fastest car that can do all of these things.
“Achieving 100 mpg? Any bright engineer can go do that,” declares Chris Theodore, vice chairman of ASC Inc., who advised the X Prize committee. “But with the rules of cost and safety and desirability and functionality, it becomes much more challenging. I’m not sure the public appreciates how difficult it is.”
That much is certain, if the X Prize group’s own survey is accurate. The contest organizers conducted a poll and found that 52 percent of Americans believe there is a conspiracy between car manufacturers and oil companies to deprive consumers of technologies that produce high fuel economy.
No souped-up Prius with extra batteries is going to be successful in this contest, says S.M. Shahed, senior research fellow at Honeywell Turbo Technologies. “It will require a huge weight reduction,” he notes. “You can’t simply add more heavy batteries.”
Maintaining safety in lightweight cars will be a challenge, Shahed acknowledges. But it can be met by having the car sacrifice itself to protect the occupants at a lower crash speed than is typical today. “If the price you have to pay for having a 100-mpg car is totaling the car at 25 mph, then I’m willing to pay that price,” he says. -edmunds