"If we increased fuel economy to 40 mpg over 10 years, then within 15 years we would have saved more oil than we would ever get out of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge over its entire 40-50-year life. And the savings from better fuel economy would keep on growing indefinitely, while the oil wells would dry up." — Union of Concerned Scientists
What strikes me the most in talking to John Shore, a senior director of the Automotive X Prize (AXP), is his optimism. The X Prize Foundation has announced that it is planning to award a multimillion-dollar prize in just two years to the team that can design, build and race a car that emits less greenhouse gases than any mass-produced vehicle in existence and that can average 100 mpg, more than four times the national average. As if that wasn't enough, Shore adds that "it is our hope that some of the vehicles will be in production within the following year."
Sounds impossible, right? Sure, but the folks at the X Prize Foundation know a thing or two about impossible. Back in 1996, they announced the Ansari X Prize, which offered $10 million to the first private team to successfully launch three people into space twice within a two-week period. At the time, it seemed like an impossibility, but a scant eight years later, there they were, handing over the check to a group of entrepreneurs who had done just that. Now, recognizing a stagnation in the auto industry, our unsustainable thirst for foreign oil, and the massive climate change that is upon us, they've set their sights a little closer to home.
The AXP guidelines, which were released on April 2 for public review, call for teams to design, build and race vehicles that will be acceptable to the public. And these vehicles also need to lessen our impact on the environment and achieve unheard of fuel economy. Endorsed by both the National Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists, the guidelines were determined by two teams, one geopolitical and one environmental (including Vice President Al Gore and former CIA director James Woolesly), and have been designed to ensure that the vehicles considered are truly revolutionary.
No Concept Cars Allowed
The prize is designed to bring cars to light that the public will actually desire, so all teams will be required to submit design and business plans long before they get to the starting line. As Shore is quick to point out, "We are very much about production-capable cars, not concept cars," so the vehicles that will be considered for the race will need to be capable of being produced profitably at a scale of 10,000 units. All vehicles are required to have seatbelts, windshield wipers, mirrors, lights, odometers and fuel-use displays as well as enclosed cabins. The hope is that people will see these cars, and actually want to drive them.
100 Mile Per Gallon equivalent (MPGe)
While everyone has talked about the 100 mpg car for years, the X Prize folks realized that a vehicle that could achieve this shouldn't be limited to using gasoline. As a result, the cars that enter the race may run on gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, ethanol, natural gas or electricity, because these are the fuel sources that they felt will be readily available in the coming years. As each of these fuels carries different amounts of energy, the foundation requires each vehicle to achieve the equivalent efficiency of a 100 mpg gasoline vehicle, and has computed these numbers for each of the fuels. In addition, the foundation will supply all the fuels so that all vehicles will be running on the same sources.
The vehicles will be broken down into two categories; mainstream and alternative. The mainstream vehicles, the cars that will most likely make their way to the showroom floors, will be required to carry four or more passengers and 10 cubic feet of cargo, have four or more wheels, hit 60 mph in under 12 seconds, have a minimum top speed of 100 mph and allow a 200-mile range. They will need to have a braking distance from 60 mph of less than 170 feet and have climate control, an audio package and a real-time eco-feedback display that will let the driver know what the present mpg rating is. The alternative vehicles will be required to carry two or more passengers and 5 cubic feet of cargo, hit 60 mph in under 12 seconds, have a top speed of at least 80 mph and allow a 100-mile range. They will have to meet the same braking distance requirement as the mainstream vehicles and an eco-feedback display as well. In addition to the above criteria, all entries will need to meet the following requirements:
- 100 MPGe over the course of the race
- Total greenhouse gas emissions, including all contributions from fuel extraction, production, distribution and consumption, cannot exceed 200 grams per mile
- Produce no more greenhouse gas emissions in production than any other similar car manufactured today
- Meet or exceed all current safety standards
At the present time, initial applications, designs and business plans will be judged in early to mid-2008. The vehicles that meet the standards set by the foundation will then proceed to the qualifying race which will take place in early 2009, during which the vehicles will be required to achieve 75 MPGe over the course of the race. Those vehicles that finish and meet the mpg and emissions standards will then advance to the Grand Finale race, set for later in 2009.
The purpose of the Grand Finale, Shore notes, "is not as much about picking the winner as it is about stimulating change." As a result, the race will be broadcast live on the Web and will contain real-time feedback information on the cars' performance, speed, emissions and MPGe rating. The course, which at this time is expected to be a cross-country race, will cover varied terrain including city driving, during which drivers will be required to obey all traffic and safety laws. The hope is that this will increase public exposure for the vehicles and illustrate that these cars can achieve high mileage in everyday driving situations. At the end of the race, the vehicle in each category which meets the 100 MPGe challenge and emissions criteria, and has clocked in at the fastest time, will be crowned the winner. The multimillion-dollar purse, whose value has yet to be determined but is believed to be in the $25 million range, will be split 3:1 between the mainstream and alternative vehicle champions.
As stated on its Web site, "The Automotive X Prize will invite teams from around the world to focus on a single goal: design viable, clean and super-efficient cars that people want to buy." With any luck, by the end of the decade, these cars will not only be in production, but will be desirable, affordable and available for purchase at a dealership near you.