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Automotive X PRIZE Increases Pressure for 100 MPG Cars
Apr 4, 2007 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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Ever since the spectacularly successful Ansari X-Prize inspired 26 teams to build spaceships, people have been talking about extending the concept to land-based vehicles. That first competition was comparatively simple, rewarding the first team to make two suborbital flights in two weeks. (It was won in 2004 by Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan, an enthusiastic owner of a GM EV1 -- see a photo of him with our PHEV under a solar carport at­photos-people.html.)

When the X Prize Foundation started to design an automotive prize, they encountered a large and complex challenge. They wanted to accelerate the technology and commercialization of advanced vehicles while also capturing the public's interest and imagination. They worked on it for several years, getting lots of advice.

This week they released Version 6 of their Draft Competition Guidelines (a 37 page document) and invited teams to register. At, read all about their plans and their thinking process, send comments or post to their blog­axp/­2007/­04/­axp_raises_the_.html#comments.

What do we think about it? Mostly, we're thrilled that this effort will raise public awareness about how much better cars can be -- and increase pressure on car-makers. You'll see early evidence of the impact in Detroit in the first New York Times report: "Seeking a Car That Gets 100 Miles a Gallon," by Nick Bunkley­2007/­04/­02/­business/­02xprize.html, which says, in part:

Many major automakers have also expressed interest in monitoring the contest, including some that are considering competing themselves. Ideally, Mr. Goodstein said, some of the top teams would see their designs purchased and used in some form by automakers. A General Motors spokeswoman, Susan Garavaglia, said the company had not determined its level of participation in the contest but would pay close attention to it. "G.M. is always looking for new innovative technology to improve fuel economy and performance and reduce emissions of our vehicles," Ms. Garavaglia said. "The key is whether or not it can be provided to the customer in a way that's affordable to them and in a way that we can make it in a high-volume application."
In fact, several cars have been built that could travel more than 100 miles on a gallon, but they were expensive and were used only for demonstration. "Building a one-off that can go 100 miles per gallon, I think any of the automakers could do that," said James A. Croce, chief executive of NextEnergy, a nonprofit organization in Detroit that promotes alternative energy. "It's mass-producing them that's the problem." But if the Automotive X Prize works as intended, that problem could be resolved much faster than the industry might on its own. "This is not a question of curing cancer," Mr. Goodstein said. "The technologies to build superefficient vehicles exist. It's just a matter of convincing manufacturers to build them." <end>

100MPG is the starting point: after much consideration, the X Prize decided to require that all competitors get at least 100 MPG equivalent. (A familiar number to CalCars: in typical driving cycles, my lithium-ion Prius PHEV gets about 87MPG equivalent when you factor the cost of electricity back in.) To avoid being swamped by impractical "concept cars," and perhaps responding to those (PHEV advocates included) who said that unlike the space competition, the main challenge was mass production, the requirements include convincing business plans for production of at least 10,000 vehicles. And the time frame is now compressed (perhaps watching the progress of GM's PHEVs and the announced intentions of Visionary Vehicles to mass-produce PHEVs in China for delivery to the U.S. in 2009.)

In fact, PHEVs have always presented a challenge to the X Prize -- because car-makers could go into the business of mass-producing them anytime. Faced with PHEVs (and EVs) that could meet or supercede their winning criteria, here's what we find at "market realities"­xprize/­market.html:

Although biofuel, fuel-cell, and plug-in technologies are all promising, current consumer attitudes and transportation infrastructure all but require continued use of gasoline and diesel fuels. Fully electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are conceptually attractive, but the extent to which they shift the energy and environmental costs to other sectors is not well understood. Likewise, it is not clear that long term recyclability and other environmental issues are well-understood. <end>

The designers of the prize have attempted to create a level playing field. It's not clear that they have succeeded -- or that anyone could! They've tackled difficult and ambitious questions. • Should the prize reward business innovation (commercialization) or encourage the development of new technologies? • To complicate matters, car-making is generally a large-scale process. Yet won't the public and the media will be most interested in seeing what comes out of small garages, not large enterprises? • The millions (or even tens of millions) in prize money, may amply motivate thousands of small competitors. What will it mean to a large international manufacturer? • What comes to mind to most people when asked about a car competition is a cross-country race. Cars that excel at that goal will be designed differently than commuter cars. How can the prize balance performance driving hundreds of miles a day versus performance for the average daily 25-miles round-trip (with the opportunity to refuel nightly)? • What are the implications of the decision to measure fuel economy on a "pump to wheels" or "plug to wheels" rather than a broader "well to wheels" basis? How can the competition factor in cars fueled partly or entirely by solar or wind power?

An entertaining excerpt from Joel Makower's blog­joel_makower/­2007/­04/­the_automotive_.html may encourage you to explore the X Prize website further to understand what they're proposing and to send them comments.

"The axioms we began with were that 'the technology exists' and 'the market must be a central determining actor in awarding the prize,'" Mark Goodstein, the Auto X Prize (AXP) executive director, recalled last week. The first big idea was that the prize would be a sales race -- a competition to see who could sell the greatest number of the most efficient vehicles. But that led to a number of complex issues. For example, a sales race would favor companies that had existing sales channels and marketing budgets, leaving smaller companies in the dust. And what happens if a company sold cars for little or no profit? Again, this could favor large, well-financed companies that could afford to absorb a loss (much as Toyota for years with the Prius).

"We couldn't come up with a mechanism to get over all the objectives," Goodstein told me. "So we abandoned it."

Sustainability was another challenge -- whether and how to consider the cradle-to-cradle impacts of the materials and manufacturing processes used by the competitors. This turned out to be another complex issue. For example, it was determined that any cradle-to-cradle criteria would likely burden smaller players who don't have extensive procurement departments or dedicated sustainability staff. "We realized, after talking to some start-up owners and the [big automakers], that this would put the start-ups out of business," says Goodstein. In the end, AXP decided not to focus on the environmental details of vehicle production, recycling, and destruction.

There were still other challenges: what metric to use (fuel economy, fuel cost per mile, etc.) in designing the goal; which fuels would be allowed; and how to measure the carbon equivalency of different fuels -- gasoline, biofuels, electricity, hydrogen, and combinations thereof. None of these is an exact science, and each required a great deal of back-and-forth discussions, not to mention more than a little number-crunching.

"We've created and thrown out all sorts of guidelines," says Goodstein with a sigh.

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