Building a car from scratch is a huge undertaking. To design, build and race a production-capable vehicle that achieves the efficiency of a 100-mpg gasoline engine, emits less greenhouse gases than any car on the market, is affordable and desirable — in less than two years — is a Herculean task. Yet as of August 1, more than 30 teams had entered the competition for the multimillion-dollar Automotive X Prize (AXP), each with their own unique vision of what the car of the future will be.
The teams, which mostly hail from the U.S. but also include entries from Germany, England, Canada and Switzerland, have all registered letters of intent, and more than 300 additional teams are inquiring about entering. While none of the major car manufacturers have signed on, a few companies such as Tesla Motors and Phoenix Motorcars, which already have alternative-fuel vehicles in production, will be competing in the 2009 qualifying race. Most of the other teams are comprised of small groups of individuals who have banded together to challenge not only our idea of what a car should be, but perhaps of what a car company should be as well. Here are a few worth watching.
- Zero Pollution Motors — Air is everywhere, and if CEO Shiva Vencat has anything to say about it, his compressed-air four-door, five-passenger "air car" will be a major contender in the X Prize contest. While the car's engine runs on compressed air, the vehicle will achieve increased range by heating the air canisters using propane, ethanol or gasoline. Vencat says that Zero is presently testing a prototype and expects the car, which will have a 500-mile range and a top speed of 96 mph, to sell for around $13,000. He points out that while the car will run clean, it is his hope that eventually homes and commercial filling stations will have solar compressors that will be able to fill the vehicle's tanks in under two minutes.
- Desert Fuel — Inspired by the AXP and its potential to change the world of personal transportation, Brian McCoy and his buddies decided that they could build what Detroit has said couldn't be done. Using a beat-up 1980 VW Rabbit, they are engineering a biodiesel electric hybrid that uses solar panels, regenerative braking and even a small Stirling engine to make the vehicle as efficient as possible. The main power for the vehicle comes from a biodiesel engine that supplies energy to the electric motors and the battery banks, similar to the Chevy Volt concept. McCoy stresses that the team is using only off-the-shelf products, and notes that the car will have a 250-mile range and a top speed of 100 mph, and he is shooting for a price around $26,000.
- Society for Sustainable Mobility — Want to help make a winning AXP vehicle but don't know how? Well, you've found the right place. This AXP entry is not only open-source, which means that anyone with enough knowledge can lend their two cents, but it's also nonprofit, which means that everyone else can lend their two dollars. Chairman David Lee explains that its entry, dubbed "The Kernal," will be a hybrid SUV that looks like a Toyota Highlander but performs like a Porsche Cayenne. Presently the group has more than 140 engineers from all over the world working on the project, and hopes to have a working prototype by 2009. The vehicle will be a plug-in hybrid with an onboard generator for powering the batteries. Eventually the generator will be swappable, able to run on natural gas, ethanol, a fuel cell, or diesel, but for the competition, Lee says they will probably be running diesel or biodiesel. The Kernal will have a 300-mile range, sell for around $30,000 and should be available in 2010.
- The GreenIt! Project — Can a group of four college students really make the car of the future? Mario Landau-Holdsworth, the company's president, sure thinks they can. Their vehicle will be an all-electric four-door sedan, the body of which will come from a used car. The prototype, to be unveiled by the end of the year, will have a 250-mile range and the ability to be quick charged if necessary. Setting their entry apart is the presence of a sociologist in the group, whose main focus is assessing what makes people desire a vehicle and seeing that the GreenIt! car fits those needs.
- Kinetic Vehicles — President Jack McCormack is no stranger to high-mileage cars. He's been making 50-mpg two-seater kit cars for years. So when the AXP announced the alternative vehicle class, he thought, why not? His four-wheeled two-seater, which will look like a 1960s roadster, will most likely run on vegetable oil and have a 1,000-mile range. While the company only has five employees, McCormack is quick to point out that it has a lot of volunteers, including local high school students who are receiving credit for their input. The car will be made from off-the-shelf technology, all plans and part numbers will be available online and eventually the whole vehicle will sell in kit form for under $20,000.
While it's hard to imagine a group of college kids or an open-source kit designer taking on the entire auto industry, that may just be what's in store. After all, a lone 14-year-old boy conceptualized the television while plowing his field in 1920, and the Apple Computer was created by two 20-somethings in their garage, sparking the PC revolution. As noted anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has." Perhaps this will be not only the lesson of the Automotive X Prize, but its legacy as well.
Dave Chameides teaches grade school students about renewable energy and sustainability and has converted his car to run on used vegetable oil.
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