Automotive X Prize: Why some teams failed

Consumer Reports News: September 23, 2010 12:07 PM

After Edison2, Li-ion Motors, and X-Tracer drove away with the $10 million prize money last week, another 21 Automotive X Prize finalists went home to lick their wounds, tell their war stories, and most of all to try to raise some more money. (Read: "What's next for prize winners and contestants?")

They failed for lots of different reasons, including many heart-wrenching near misses, minor decisions that proved devastating, or mechanical missteps. As this video shows, there were challenges and drama through the competition. For finalists, a key challenge was the 50-lap race around Michigan International Speedway, with a large "bus stop" chicane on the back straightaway. Cars had to maintain at least 45 mph and not exceed 70 mph. It was very much a race for time and efficiency among the Side-by-Side Alternative class contenders. By the time of the race, the other two classes were uncontested, so those entries did not race. (Read: "Finals race results, officials closer to naming winners.")

Ultimately, five teams that made it all the way through the finals (an impressive feat!), lost the last race to Li-Ion Motors, the ultimate winner of the Side-by-side Alternative class.

After weeks of admirable competition, Team Raceabout of Finland finished just 0.2 seconds behind Li-Ion in the final race.

The German team, TW4XP, had a car designed for lower speeds and was about seven laps behind.

ZAP, an established maker of low-speed electric vehicles and bicycles in California, ran out of power from its batteries about two laps from the finish.

Two companies' cars overheated during the final race. Tata, the largest carmaker in India, saw its electric Indica Vista fail about 15 laps into the 50 lap race. And Aptera, a California company with hundreds of pre-orders for its three-wheeled car, and perhaps the best-finished car in the competition, was sidelined with overheating problems after about 30 laps.

Western Washington University, which had had problems passing the initial tech inspection in June, practically sailed through the Knockout round in July. But the driver couldn't get the car through the emergency avoidance maneuver in the Finals in the required six tries. (It took him 11.) And the car's hand-built carbon-fiber frame tore in the braking test.

The gregarious and popular Team Illuminati looked great in the Shakedown round, but was knocked out in the acceleration tests in July when the clutch in the car's Suzuki transmission couldn't handle the repeated torque loads in the acceleration tests. The team later eliminated the clutch, which was mostly redundant in an electric vehicle anyway.

FVT Racing, a Canadian team that looked good in the Shakedown stage in June, had an innovative extended-range Tandem two-seat sports car with a Honda Goldwing motorcycle engine. A software bug in the controller for the car's twin electric motors, however, caused the controller to overheat in that stage's durability test.

And the West Philly Hybrid team, a group of students building cars as part of an after-school club at West Philadelphia High School seemed an unlikely contender. It fielded two cars, a mainstream hybrid conversion of a Ford Focus, and a sports car from a kit with a series hybrid diesel powerplant. The sports car didn't make the grade in the tech inspection. And the Harley-Davidson-powered Focus produced too much CO2 after the charge cord had come unplugged during the previous charging, making the gas engine run harder than the team had intended.

Likewise, the Thai foam car, Spira, produced too many emissions from its small motorcycle engine, and, once power-plant emissions were factored in, so did the ultra-fast electric Tango.

One team from Europe never even made it to the competition when the volcano eruption in Iceland canceled its flights to the United States, and it couldn't get its car through the tech inspection.

And a couple of the teams who did show up for the initial tech inspection, FourSight and Wikispeed, brought cars that showed promise but weren't ready for competition in time.

These teams all sacrificed much for the competition. Their efforts and innovation were inspiring, and in many cases the cars and technology created will continue forward. Their efforts were laudable and inspiring, and we look forward to seeing where their drive leads them.

See our Auto X Prize coverage here in the Cars blog, as well as in our special Auto X Prize section.

See our guide to fuel economy for advice on saving gasoline. Learn about future technologies in our guide to alternative fuels.

Eric Evarts

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