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Auto X Prize hits home stretch

A $10 million competition for ultra-efficient vehicles is rolling on toward next month's finals after eliminating about a dozen of the cars vying for the prize. The Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize competition is aimed at rewarding the development of marketable automobiles capable of getting of 100 miles per gallon of gasoline, or the equivalent for other energy sources (a measure known as MPGe). Almost half of the cars that came to the Michigan International Speedway for the contest's Knockout stage, conducted at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., had to go home with wounded hopes. At the most, 15 cars are still in the running for a share of the X Prize purse. And until the organizers announce the official lineup for the on-track finals, due to take place July 19-30, there's a chance that additional cars could yet be eliminated. But there are clear front-runners for the $10 million, based on this week's results: • If anyone is going to win the $5 million set aside for four-seat mainstream cars this year, it will be the Edison2 team, led by Virginia real estate developer Oliver Kuttner. The only vehicles left in that competition category are two of the models entered by Edison2. One of the team's hybrid Very Light Cars achieved 101.4 MPGe before penalties were assessed. But after accounting for those penalties (deducted due to repairs, drive cycle violations or other no-nos), its score fell to 67.3, barely above the 67 MPGe requirement for this round. Edison2 also has a tandem two-seater vying for an alternative prize. • Li-ion Motors' all-electric Wave II registered the highest fuel efficiency among side-by-side two-seaters, with a 182.3 MPGe performance. That's a front-running performance among "alternative" cars in the Knockout stage. But winning $2.5 million in the finals could require speed as well as efficiency. If multiple cars satisfy all the requirements during the finals, including the 100 MPGe standard, then the prize goes to the car with the lowest elapsed time during an on-track trial that's designed to test efficiency as well as range. The side-by-side class has eight entrants, so this is potentially the most competitive category. • Switzerland's X-Tracer Team had not just one, but two tandem two-seaters entered in the Knockout stage, and both of them were passed through to the finals. The X-Tracer cars (which look more like glorified motorcycles) had the highest efficiency scores in their class, at 180 and 171.6 MPGe. That makes them the front-runners for the $2.5 million in the tandem alternative category. During the Knockout stage, they were the only cars in their class to achieve better than 100 MPGe efficiency. There are also plenty of disappointments. Among the teams eliminated over the past week and a half are American HyPower, BITW Technologies, Enginer, FVT Racing, Global-E, Illuminati Motor Works, OptaMotive, Team EVX and West Philly Hybrid X. The Cornell 100+ MPG Team, K-Way MOTUS and Liberty Motors Group withdrew even before the Knockout trials got started last week. The Knockout outcome was particularly disappointing for the West Philly team, a high-school group that garnered more and more attention as the contest progressed; and for the Illuminati gang, whose retro-looking electric car offered the only competition for the Edison2 team in the mainstream class. The Illuminati Seven vehicle posted an impressive 119.8 MPGe score in the efficiency trials. "We're out," Illuminati announced in a Twitter tweet on Monday evening. "Despite amazing efficiency MPGe, we were knocked out when our transmission broke during the Consumer Reports 0-60 test." West Philly's converted Ford Focus fell 3.5 points short of the required efficiency score of 67 MPGe, apparently due in part to a battery-charging snafu. Simon Hauger, the West Philadelphia High School teacher who led the team, was philosophical in his Monday-morning blog post: "Our game plan was right on, our cars ran perfectly, and our kids amazed everyone who had the pleasure of meeting them. We proved to the world that a bunch of high school kids and their teachers can build a safe, affordable, American-made car that gets over 75 mpg (over 100 mpg on the highway). This is a real car that has a real business plan. It was built by real kids and what they have done has real significance." That's the bottom line for the X Prize phenomenon. It's not about the $10 million. ... OK, maybe it's partly about the $10 million. But in the longer run, it's about bursts of innovation that will yield real payoffs in the years to come. I can hardly wait to see how the next burst plays out. Learn more about the teams still standing after the Knockout round: Mainstream Class Teams:

Mainstream Class vehicles must carry four or more passengers, have four or more wheels, and offer a 200-mile range.Edison2, Lynchburg, Virginia (E85, two cars) Alternative Class Teams:

Alternative Class vehicles must carry two or more passengers and allow for a 100-mile range. Side-by-side seating:amp, Blue Ash, Ohio (Electric)

Aptera Motors, Vista, California (Electric)

Li-ion Motors at EV Innovations, Mooresville, North Carolina (Electric)

RaceAbout Association, Helsinki, Finland (Electric)

Tata Motors Limited, Coventry, United Kingdom (Electric)

TW4XP, Rosenthal, Germany (Electric)

Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington (Gasoline)

ZAP, Santa Rosa, California (Electric) Tandem seating:Edison2, Lynchburg, Virginia (E85)

Spira, Banglamung, Chonburi, Thailand (Gasoline)

Tango (Commuter Cars), Spokane, Washington (Electric)

X-Tracer Team Switzerland, Uster, Switzerland (Electric, two cars) Check out our slideshow of X Prize competitors from the earlier Shakedown stage of the competition. And for still more about Edison2, click through to Jason Fagone's report for Slate. Update for 1:30 p.m. ET June 30: A new spreadsheet from the X Prize lays out what happened during the Knockout stage in further detail. Most of the eliminated cars failed to reach the minimum 67 MPGe requirement, with a smattering of cars that flunked the emissions test or the technical inspection, didn't achieve 0-to-60 acceleration or simply didn't show up in time for an on-track event. "The Knockout was just that - a true knockout - which surprised some of the teams with its rigor," Cristin Lindsay, vice president of prize operations for the X Prize Foundation, told me. The finals could bring similar surprises. As an example, Lindsay pointed to Illuminati's transmission failure during the acceleration trial. "I could see that type of thing happening at finals again," she said. So get ready for some even more serious chills and thrills in the weeks ahead. On the correction front, meanwhile, TW4XP is in the side-by-side alternative class, rather than the tandem class where I initially listed it.

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