The Next X-Prize Beckons Velozzi
By Bill Moore
It was the pursuit of the $25,000 Orteig Prize that sent Lindberg across the Atlantic solo. The £50,000 Kremer Prize lured Dr. Paul MacCready into building the Gossamer Condor, the first human-powered aircraft. The $10 million dollar Ansari X Prize sent SpaceShipOne to the edge of space. Now the Automotive X Prize hopes to stimulate a more earthbound quest, motor vehicles that pollute less, are dramatically more efficient and are affordable.
Given the distinctly aeronautical-orientation of the previous prizes, it seems fitting that one of the first teams to formally announce their intention to compete would have its origins in America's space program, where its founding member, Roberto Jerez worked as a contractor to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
It was through JPL that he developed friendships that would provide him with the core of the team of aerospace scientists and automotive engineers that would become Team Velozzi.
For Jerez, this X Prize is just as significant and perhaps even more so than previous competitions, exciting though they were. He points out that one-third of the climate altering gases emitted into the atmosphere come from transportation. While those prizes pushed the boundaries of engineering through flight, this prize seeks to tackle what is fast becoming the most serious challenge to the planet, accelerated global climate change through the burning of fossil fuels.
Velozzi isn't a newcomer, Jerez explained to me. Through its various team members, it has been developing transportation and energy related technologies for some 15 years. Jerez worked on Direct Methanol Fuel Cells (DMFC) while a contractor for JPL. He has also designed and built various vehicles over the years, as well as leading Velozzi's hydrogen generator program.
As for the Automotive X-Prize, or APX as it's referred to on the Velozzi web site, the competition is open to two classes of vehicles: what Jerez calls "mainstream" and "alternative". The mainstream category is, as its name implies, a conventional, four-wheel, four-passenger vehicle, albeit with outstanding environmental and energy credentials. The "alternative" category is more or less a wide-open competition designed to encourage more "out-of-the-box" type thinking and vehicles. According to Jerez, to date, some 1,000 individuals and groups have indicated their interest in participating in the competition.
The overriding design strategy for Velozzi is weight-savings and has its origins in high performance auto racing. He pointed out that the lighter the vehicle, the less energy it takes to move it. And while that raises the specter -- at least in the minds of some people in Congress -- that lighter vehicles mean more automotive fatalities, Jerez argues that using high-strength composite materials and design can make vehicles like the Velozzi safer than current technology.
"When you build the car using Formula One technology or Indy Car technology you make your car out of composites, but the composites themselves absorb the impact better."
However, Jerez later acknowledged that composites are expensive, but that his group is looking at ways to reduce those costs to make manufacture of the car beyond a custom prototype practical.
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