Despite all of the environmentally friendly cars shown at the Detroit auto show this year, no imminent production model could be expected to sustain an average of 100 mpg—just one requirement in the Auto X Prize competition. Even the display plug-in hybrids would fall short in the real-world once their gasoline or diesel engine starts up to supplement the drained battery pack. However, Automotive X Prize aims to spur development of that mythical 100 mpg car with a unique race backed by a $10 million purse.
So far, 51 teams from seven countries have signed up to enter this competition. Many have brand-new technologies and have never built cars before. Some are technology companies in other industries (such as electric machinery components), but they haven't made vehicles, either. Some entrants are backyard inventors with patents on interesting technologies that have not been used in cars, and some are just creative tinkerers who think they have a better idea. Other entrants are established niche vehicle companies that have built a wide variety of "alternative" cars—most of them electric, tiny, slow, three-wheelers, or not highway legal. At least one university team is competing, as well.
Below is a list of teams that, based on their technology, name recognition (and thus access to funds), and the details of their plans, sound the most promising to me:
- Tesla Motors is entering one of their all-electric Roadsters, with a range expected to be over 200 miles, 0-60 mph acceleration under 4 seconds, and a price over $100,000. It is expected to be on sale later this year.
- Loremo AG, a company based in Munich, Germany, was also working on their car before the competition was announced. It is a rear-wheel drive, four-wheeled 2+2 coupe (two front seats, and two jump seats in the rear for children) powered by a 20-hp, two-cylinder diesel engine, that the company says will get 150 mpg.
- Cornell University plans a simpler approach: taking an old Geo Metro and converting it to plug-in hybrid power. I include them because this team has been in the top tier of most competitions it has entered, including being only one of five finishers in this year's DARPA Urban Challenge for self-driving vehicles.
So far, however, no major automakers have entered. And most of the advanced university teams and automotive think-tanks have not entered.
X Prize officials noted that the deadline for entries will be set soon; the first round of competition is scheduled for next spring. The officials said they still expected to hear from a number of last-minute entrants. In the meantime, given the cost to develop a competitive entry and meet the competition's consumer acceptability requirements, complete with a business plan for producing and selling 10,000 cars, there may not be a competitor who walks away with the prize in 2010.
But previous X Prize competitions have worked like the DARPA Grand Challenge: If no one claims the prize the first year, it gets offered again until someone does.
So take heart, tinkerers, there may be a next time.
Check out our previous coverage of the Automotive X Prize:
Auto X Prize announces the teams competing to build 100-mpg car
Auto X Prize to reward 100-mpg car
Discuss the Auto X Prize in the Consumer Reports forum.