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.
Multi-fuel, Micro-turbine Plug-in Hybrid
Of course, to achieve low emissions and high fuel economy, the vehicle is going to have to include electric drive and both Velozzi vehicles, the two-seat sports cars pictured above and the mainstream Velozzi X, which the group is keeping secret, will be series plug-in hybrids utilizing lithium-ion batteries.
Since concerns over future resource availability and global warming are driving the shift away from a single, monolithic transportation fuel infrastructure dependent almost exclusively on petroleum, and towards a far wider array of alternatives including biofuels like ethanol, methanol and biodiesel, Velozzi is planning to use a micro-turbine of their own design which will power the onboard generator while being able to run on nearly any type of combustible fuel: bio-based, synthetic (coal, shale, natural gas, tar sands) and petroleum-based.
"We are using the micro-turbine to use any fuel, and to increase the range of the vehicle. We want to be able to go from California to New York just by refueling [at] gas stations. I don't want to be stopping and recharging, but I know that electricity is a great source of energy. So, [we] are trying to use [any] source of energy, but I am trying to use less of it. The less I use, the less I pollute. That's the goal of the X-Prize..."
While Jerez acknowledges that any turbine will emit pollutants, he contends that because they are so much more efficient than a conventional reciprocating engine, that they pollute far less. The group has a working model of their micro-turbine, but Jerez wouldn't discuss any specifics about it for reasons of secrecy.
While not a part of Velozzi's AXP efforts, the group has also developed a hydrogen generator that utilizes methanol, a molecule that is not only rich in hydrogen atoms (4) but also has a lower surface tension than water, so the hydrogen can be more easily "cracked."
"We use very little electricity to drive the reaction," he explained. "Once the reaction takes place, the heat, itself, drives the reaction further."
He told me that while Velozzi's hydrogen generator is smaller than other comparable generators, it produces four times as much hydrogen.
"One of the goals of [Velozzi] is to provide the infrastructure to help the industry to come up with something people are willing to put out there. So we have a set of generators and we are committed to let government use it. We want cities to use it. We are in talks with the City of Los Angeles... to perhaps let them use our system pro bono.
"We want to be part of the solution. We know that the hydrogen fuel or the infrastructure is not going to be here in maybe the next twenty years, if you want to be realistic.."
He thinks that much of the talk about hydrogen highways is, for the moment, largely "PR" and "smoke and mirrors."
"But we have the technology and we are inviting industries or corporations to join us to benefit from what we have."
Since he worked on DMFCs, I asked Jerez about the status of the technology and he commented that while they are suitable for applications requiring less than 1kW, once you cross that threshold, their costs become prohibitive.
"One of the reasons is the platinum that is used as a catalyst; they require more platinum than regular [PEM] fuel cells."
He noted that research going on at JPL has demonstrated a way to reduce the amount of this very costly element in a DMFC while maintaining its power output. Still, the technology is expensive and a great deal of R&D remains to be done to address this. Impeding further progress, however, are a number of patent infringement lawsuits that have muddied the water.
Inspired by Apple's iPod
Velozzi has completed its initial design and engineering work on its vehicles and is starting to build the first prototype, Jerez said, a process that is facilitated by the fact that members of the team are respected builders of major OEM concept cars.
However, building exotic one-off concept cars may be acceptable for billion dollar corporations who are looking to gain media buzz at annual car shows, but those usually don't translate into commercially-producible models. So, teams like Velozzi also have to give thought to how to make their vehicles affordable, and Jerez said his team's goal is a car that will cost under $30,000.
He pointed out that while the Velozzi pictured above will be expensive, it will serve as the "poster child" for his groups technology.
"We want to create a car that will have a following, kind of like the [Apple] iPod following. IPods were great because they were simple looking yet fresh and had a clean design. So, we have been inspired by that. We want to create something that gives that feel to the consumer."
Velozzi is actively seeking corporate sponsorship to help underwrite its production, along with developing a television documentary.
"We are in discussions with several companies and there is big interest," he told me.
While the X-Prize has submitted its competition rules for public comment, from Jerez's perspective "the competition has already begun" even if the final rules haven't yet been set in stone. He expects to have his vehicles ready for the competition by late 2008.
"To build the car from scratch, you need at least eighteen months; and the cost, you know, for a prototype is at least $3 million per vehicle... So, it's not inexpensive, but it's not impossible. You can actually build vehicles fairly simply if you have [a] good team; if you have a good qualified team, and we do. We know the process. We've been there several times. We know what it takes."
That includes careful consideration of the manufacturability of the vehicle, including the use of composites.
"You have to be global about it, meaning you have to build components in different parts of the world and to bring them over here and assembly them... But it is possible. It is very doable if you have the contacts and if you have the strategy to make a cost-effective vehicle using composites today."
Jerez expects to unveil the "mainstream" Velozzi X later this summer or early fall. While it won't have the performance numbers of the two-seater, he said that its zero-to-sixty will still be impressive.
You can listen to our entire, 30-minute discussion using either of the two MP3 players at the top of the page or by downloading it to your computer for transfer to your favorite MP3 device.