$10 million bounty for super-efficient cars

A $10 million contest to develop super-efficient — and salable — automobiles is getting its official kickoff on Thursday, with Progressive Insurance providing the purse.

The Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize, modeled after earlier prizes for spaceflight and genetic research, is aimed at promoting the creation of cars that get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon, while at the same time hitting targets for low greenhouse-gas emissions, safety and affordability.

More than 60 teams have announced their intention to compete, with cross-country stage races slated for 2009 and 2010. The spectacle could well hark back a century, to the first-ever transcontinental road race in 1909, said Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation.

"It's incredible that the Ford Model T got 25 miles per gallon, and many of the cars that we drive today get less," Diamandis told msnbc.com. "One hundred years later, the average car on the road should be 100 mpg equivalent or better. This competition is a global platform that will allow some of the world's best designers and engineers to demonstrate what kinds of cars can be manufactured today, and should be on the road today."

Some details yet to be determined
For more than a year, Diamandis and other X Prize executives have been working on the rules,  recruiting contestants and wooing sponsors. Many of the details still have to be worked out, including exactly where the races will be held. But prize organizers took advantage of this week's New York International Auto Show to announce that they finally had the money to go forward with the $10 million contest.

Progressive will offer the prize money as well as the cash for administering the competition, said Glenn Renwick, the insurance company's president and chief executive officer. He regarded the sponsorship as a marketing opportunity as well as an opportunity to do something "great for society."

"Our future is directly linked to the future of the automobile," Renwick said. "If we can provide a forum for some of the best engineers and scientists in the world to bring forward new ideas and give them this stage, I think that's tremendous. ... Maybe we all win."

Who’s on board ... and who’s not?
Among the teams intending to compete are Tesla Motors, which has already started production of a $98,000, two-seat, electric-powered sports car; ZAP Motors, which has been producing electric vehicles for years; and Aptera, which is on the verge of marketing a futuristic-looking, three-wheeled electric vehicle.

However, the major automakers are conspicuous by their absence from the list. That's because the final contest rules have not yet been published, Diamandis said. "The major auto manufacturers won't consider joining the competition until the rules are finalized," he said.

"We are still hopeful that the major manufacturers will compete, but as with the Ansari X Prize [for private spaceflight], it's OK if they don't," Diamandis said.

The $10 million Ansari X Prize was won in 2004 by the SpaceShipOne rocket plane, built by California-based Scaled Composites with an estimated $25 million in backing from software billionaire Paul Allen. Just before the prize was won, the SpaceShipOne team struck a $250 million deal with British billionaire Richard Branson to build a fleet of passenger spaceships. Then, last year, Scaled was acquired by Northrop Grumman, a major aerospace company.

"You might very well see the winner of the Automotive X Prize get snapped by one of the major manufacturers," Diamandis said.

Diamandis' organization administers several other prize challenges, including the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize for private moon exploration, the $10 million Archon Genomics X Prize for low-cost genome sequencing, and the $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

The Automotive X Prize contest will award prizes in two classes: one for "mainstream" vehicles, equipped with four wheels and capable of carrying at least four passengers; and another for "alternative" vehicles that have at least three wheels and room for two passengers.

The prize money would be divvied up to give three-quarters to the mainstream winner, and the remaining quarter to the alternative-class winner. That means the $10 million would be split into $7.5 million and $2.5 million prizes. However, the X Prize organizers are still trying to get additional sponsors to beef up the purse.

Rules of the road
To encourage the majors to join in, special recognition — and perhaps special prizes — might be directed to top-performing teams that intend to produce at least 10,000 of their vehicles annually by 2010, Diamandis said.

The final rules should be worked out in 60 days or so, said John Shore, senior director for the X Prize. Teams would then be asked to register in earnest for the contest.

Diamandis said he expected to see "dozens of teams" field cars in the competition.

The rules aren't likely to be much different from the draft guidelines that were released a year ago (PDF file). Based on those guidelines, competitors would have to satisfy these requirements:

  • Power efficiency equivalent to at least 100 miles per gallon. The vehicles could be powered by petroleum-based fuels, biofuels, electricity or other energy sources likely to be available under real-world conditions. "We won't let plutonium in," Shore joked. The energy input would be converted into a miles-per-gallon equivalent.
  • Greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to no more than 200 grams of carbon dioxide per mile, which would satisfy California's proposed passenger-car standards for 2016. The vehicles would also have to satisfy other pollution standards, and the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with vehicle production would have to be no worse than those for typical vehicles in production today.
  • A passing grade from contest judges on compliance with safety standards, as well as an acceptable business plan for manufacturing 10,000 affordable vehicles annually.
  • Performance standards that are specific to the separate classes. For example, the mainstream vehicles would have to hit a top speed of at least 100 mph and show a driving range of 200 miles. The alternative vehicles would have to rev up to only 80 mph and go 100 miles without recharging or refueling.

The vehicles that clear those requirements would be pitted against each other in two rounds of cross-country racing. The courses have not yet been set, but X Prize organizers said that they would follow "real-world driving patterns," incorporating city as well as highway driving. Essentially, the fastest vehicle in each class would win the prize, although Shore said penalties might be assessed for failure to complete tasks along the course.

Diamandis said competitive bids would be sought from cities across the country to play host to the qualifying round in 2009, and then to the final round in 2010.

Back in 1909, the Ocean to Ocean Endurance Race was run between New York and Seattle (and won by a Model T).  Diamandis said "we're considering that there might be again a New York-to-Seattle race for these cars." But that would depend on how the bids turned out, he said.

Up to $3.5 million for energy education
The U.S. Department of Energy announced that the X Prize Foundation would be getting a grant of up to $3.5 million over three years for educational activities, including an "online knowledge center" about the competition and automotive technology.

"The purpose of this is to enable a broad outreach campaign, aimed at engaging kindergarten through 12th-grade students and the general public in learning about advanced vehicle technology, efficiency and climate change while the X Prize is going on," said John Mizroch, the department's principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Mizroch said the online effort also would let Internet users follow the X Prize teams' progress throughout the competition. The Web site is due to be up and running within six months.

Ed Wall, director of the Energy Department's FreedomCar program, said the foundation also might organize a national contest for students "to help envision or imagine the transportation world of the future."

Diamandis hoped the competition would show that automotive vehicles can be super-efficient and environmentally friendly as well as safe, affordable and sexy. "We will be bringing to market a new generation of cars that will put the cars we drive today into the history museum," he said.