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Races with a twist

Two unconventional auto races are getting an extra push of publicity this week: The Automotive X Prize has just formally unveiled its draft rules for super-efficient cars at the New York Auto Show, while one of the teams in the DARPA Urban Challenge is taking its robo-car show on the road.

The $2 million Urban Challenge, sponsored by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is aimed at promoting the development of autonomous vehicles capable of handling city traffic. Such supply vehicles would have obvious applications in tough environments such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and they're slated to represent a significant proportion of the armed forces' vehicle fleet by the year 2015.

The Urban Challenge is a follow-up to DARPA's open-road race, which was won in 2005 by Team Stanford's modified VW Touareg wagon. This time around, the robotic vehicles will have to handle four-way stops, merging traffic and parking places without having a human hand on the wheel.

Stanford's Urban Challenge entry, a tricked-up VW Passat wagon nicknamed Junior, would have to be considered one of the favorites. But another front-runner is Carnegie Mellon University's Boss, which is a Chevy Tahoe SUV with a robotic upgrade. Actually, there are two Bosses - Boss Tan and Boss Black - and the vehicles have been undergoing testing at an Arizona proving ground.

Last week, Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing Team started out on a cross-country trip to bring the vehicles back to Pittsburgh for further work - stopping along the way to visit sponsors in Peoria and Detroit. The Boss should be back home in Pittsburgh this weekend.

Other teams that have been taking to the test tracks include Team LUX and Team Scorpion. Eighty-nine teams in all have applied to compete, and they face an April 13 filing deadline to go on to the next phase of the challenge. The race will really heat up in August, when DARPA is due to announce the semifinalists as well as the location for November's 60-mile final event.

The Automotive X Prize will probably just be getting started by that time. Today marked the official release of the draft rules for that competition, aimed at promoting the development of marketable motor vehicles that can get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon.

As we discussed last week, the rules will undergo a 60-day public comment period before they're made final. But the draft provides the broad outlines for the competition - or should I say "competitions."

There'll be two tracks: a "mainstream" track for four-wheeled vehicles that meet the conventional expectations for four or more passengers, and an "alternative" class for innovative vehicles that push the transportation envelope while accommodating at least two passengers.

There'll also be two races: a qualifying round in early 2009 and the finals in late 2009. The winners will have to meet the 100 MPGe requirement, hold their greenhouse-gas emissions below a cap (no more than 200 grams of CO2 equivalent per mile) - and of course beat the competition on the race track.

Organizers hope that teams will start signing up this summer, with a formal kickoff event late this year. The registration fee is expected to be $5,000.

Among the unanswered questions:

  • Who will sponsor the program? Mark Goodstein, executive director for the Automotive X Prize, told me that his team was "in negotiations with a bunch of foundations and multinationals," but that a deal wasn't ready quite yet.
  • How big will the prizes be? The draft rules say the purse "will likely be in excess of" the $10 million that was awarded to the SpaceShipOne team in 2004 for the first privately developed manned spaceship. The total purse will be shared by the winners on the two development tracks, with 75 percent going toward the mainstream class. But there's not yet any specific figure.

The answers to such questions will likely determine whether the Automotive X Prize shifts into the fast lane or rattles along the shoulder. Stay tuned for race updates this summer, and feel free to weigh in with your comments once you've reviewed the guidelines.