Reflections on the Automotive X Prize

By Bill Moore

Posted: 16 Sep 2010

Fly three people to the edge of space (100 km) and return them safely; and do it twice within two weeks. That was the challenge of the Ansari X Prize.

Build a commercially-producible motor vehicle that gets the equivalent of 100 mpg. That was the challenge of the Automotive X Prize. Three winners were announced today. The question is, what impact, if any will either of these two challenges have on the status quo?

From its outset, the Ansari X Prize captured peoples' imaginations. Someday each of us might be able -- if you have the financial resources -- to hop a ride into space and see the curvature of the Earth, view the stars uninhibited by a veil of atmosphere, and experience the thrill of weightlessness. The winning team, Scaled Composites, even put together a awesomely different pair of flying machines: a strange, gangly mother ship, and its bullet-with-wings papoose.

What did the Automotive X Prize produce? A pair of two-place motorcycles and a flimsy automobile powered by a single cylinder motorcycle engine. We had those in the 1950s: they were built by companies named Isetta and Messerschmitt. I wondered how they might have faired with a bit of updating?

To be perfectly candid, I really was expecting more from the X Prize. Certainly the winning teams are to be commended, as are all the entrants, for their perseverance. But somehow, I don't see any of these vehicles winning the kind of following that will make them commercial successes. For this to occur, our perception of what an "automobile" is will have to radically change, and the asking price will have to drop dramatically: Li-ion Motor's Wave II is taking reservations for $39,000 on their three-wheeler. I can buy a Volt for two grand more.

Maybe what we've run into are the hard realities of physics and material sciences, as well as the enormous cost to develop truly breakthrough technology. I always found it curious that not a single car manufacturer entered the competition. Why didn't Volkswagen enter the L1, pictured below. VW claims that the tandem, two-seater could get the equivalent of 170 mpg at 100 mph, well beyond the goals of the X Prize. Why was it left, essentially, to a handful of relative amateurs and hobbyists on shoe-string budgets to slog their way through the competition?

Volkswagen L1 concept car could easily have won the Automotive X Prize, getting better than 250 mpg

I don't know the backstory of why X Prize couldn't convince the GMs, Fords, Toyotas, and Volkswagens of the world to throw their engineers at the problem, but the simple, sad truth is, they didn't. Nor do I expect said OEMs to rush out and start licensing negotiations with the winners, who with the possible exception of Peraves in Switzerland, will likely fade quietly into obscurity after unsuccessful bids to win orders and start limited production. After all, look at how long it's taken Aptera -- itself a failed X Prize entrant -- to get where it is, which is, essentially, still at the starting blocks production-wise. That being said, the E-Tracer may, in fact, have a bright future ahead of it as a niche vehicle, especially if it also wins the 'round the world Zero Race, in which a sister machine is currently leading the pack as of the last report out of Kazakstan.

I don't mean cast a dark shadow over Li-Ion or the Edison team's day of glory. Lord, knows they've earned their moment in the sun, and EV World wishes them well, but it'll take more than a few million dollars to move beyond today.

Some have speculated that the goal of the Automotive X Prize simply wasn't ambitious enough. 100 MPGe really isn't all that difficult to achieve, depending on how you measure it. My wife's converted plug-in Prius does better than this every day of the week. Perhaps the goal should have been 200 or 300 miles at a specific minimum curb weight, average speed, and with clearly defined safety parameters such as being able to meet DOT crash safety rules, and preferably Formula One-type standards. But then, this would likely have quickly winnowed out most of the entrants for simple budgetary reasons.

Maybe what we need instead is an International Automotive Challenge that pits the best auto makers, designers and engineers from each country against each other; a sort of automotive olympics, if you will. It would be open to all comers, but especially to national manufacturers, and with government and private industry support. There could be several categories from subcompacts to sedans, as well as sport utility and light duty trucks, in both concept and production categories. Every four years, the respective national teams would meet and compete, with the performance goals raised by 20% each four-year cycle. Individual OEMs could enter or national "super star" teams could be formed; in the United States under the auspices of USCAR, for example. It's just a thought, mind you, but it might just result in the development of exciting, practical, and affordable production vehicles for a planet that desperately needs a mental paradigm shift on the scale of the Ansari X Prize.

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