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Supercars are on track

Illuminati Motor Works
Members of the Illuminati Motor Works team hoist their Seven automobile onto

a flatbed trailer for the trip from their Illinois garage to X Prize trials in Michigan.

Nate Knappenburger holds Seven in place while Thomas Pasko secures a wheel.

After months of technologizing and tinkering, dozens of next-generation automobiles are converging on a Michigan speedway for the first round of on-track tests leading to $10 million in prizes. For some teams, this may be the end of the road.

"It's certainly possible that some teams may not make it all the way through shakedown," Eric Cahill, senior director of the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize, told me today from the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich.

Twenty-eight teams from around the world - ranging from high-school and college students to backyard inventors and honest-to-goodness automakers - are bringing 36 super-fuel-efficient vehicles to the speedway for this first phase of the X Prize competition.

It's not really a race ... at least not yet. This initial shakedown phase is aimed merely at finding out whether the cars are safe and roadworthy for the trials to come.

Over the next two weeks, inspectors will be checking out the cars, and then giving the go-ahead for drive-arounds of up to 50 miles. No scores will be given. No standings will be announced. But even though the shakedown phase is pass/fail, it will give competitors their first opportunity to see how their cars stack up against rivals.

The teams that hit all the right marks will go on to the knockout qualifying stage in June. After just one day of testing, Cahill has already gotten a clearer picture of the competition.

"You're definitely seeing a separation of the wheat from the chaff, so to speak," Cahill said. "There are teams that are more prepared, more ready, with more fit and finish. ... You see everything here from loose bolts and missing wingnuts, which are fairly easy to fix, to other issues that show there are some teams who were pressed for time. You see exposed wiring and sharp edges. We don't want to see anything arcing. We need teams to address things like that before they get on the track."

On the track, the cars will be tested on zero-to-60 acceleration, braking, lane maneuvering, city and highway fuel efficiency, and a 50-mile range test. At this stage, just surviving the tests will be good enough. But in June, the judges will start eliminating or elevating contestants based on their fuel consumption, speed, range and emission levels.

The X Prize is aimed at rewarding the best vehicles in two classes - mainstream (for four passengers) and alternative (for two passengers) - using a formula that combines all those factors. One of the clearest benchmarks is that the fuel economy should exceed the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon of gasoline. Also, the car should be capable of being produced for a mass market.

"There are some teams that have looked at this as more of an engineering challenge, [saying] 'How do we make the best car that will win the prize?' Considerations of the market are secondary," observed Jason Fagone, a writer who is following the trials for Wired magazine. He's also working on a book about the competition, tentatively titled "Genius Is Not a Plan."

At least one team, California-based Aptera, is already in the market with an electric three-wheeler that gets the equivalent of 200 mpg or so. Another extreme X Prize entrant is the electric-powered Seven, which is being fielded by Illinois' Illuminati Motor Works. "It's a Dick Tracy type of car that they built in a tractor shed," Fagone said.

The high-school students on the West Philly Hybrid X Team are taking a double-barreled approach: They built a "mainstream" model (basically a Ford Focus with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine grafted onto an electric motor) as well as an "alternative" model (a sporty-looking kit car with a biodiesel-electric hybrid drive train).

The $10 million in prize money is due to be awarded in September, after two stages of driving tests and three weeks of validation testing at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. The mainstream winner gets $5 million, and the remaining $5 million purse for alternative cars will be split evenly between the best side-by-side seater and the top tandem-seater.

The front-runners in previous car-tech competitions, such as 2005's DARPA Grand Challenge and 2007's DARPA Urban Challenge, were fairly obvious from the get-go. But Fagone said it's not that easy to handicap the competition this time around. "I don't think it's necessarily the case that the teams that have spent the most will perform the best," he told me.

"I think there will be favorites," Fagone said. "Two weeks from now we should know a lot more. But right now it's really hard to say. Talking to the racers, I've learned how many things can go wrong - and it's a long list."

Speaking of long lists, here's the full rundown of competitors in the two classes. Check back in the course of the next two weeks for updates on the emerging favorites and the also-rans:

Mainstream Class Teams:

Mainstream Class vehicles must carry four or more passengers, have four or more wheels, and offer a 200-mile range. 

• American HyPower, Centennial, Colorado (Gasoline, Hydrogen) 

• APET-X, Hong Kong, China (Electric)    

• BITW Technologies, Palmyra, Indiana (Biodiesel)  

• Cornell 100+ MPG Team, Ithaca, New York (Biodiesel) 

• Edison2, Charlottesville, Virginia (E85)   

• Enginer, Troy, Michigan (Gasoline + Steam)   

• Envera, Mill Valley, California (Gasoline)   

• Global-E, Mandeville, Louisiana (Gasoline & Electric) 

• Illuminati Motor Works, Virden, Illinois (Electric)  

• Liberty Motors Group, Botkins, Ohio (Gasoline)  

• Team FourSight, Morgantown, West Virginia (Biodiesel) 

• West Philly Hybrid X (EVX), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Gasoline) 

• WIKISPEED, Seattle, Washington (Gasoline) 

Alternative Class Teams:

Alternative Class vehicles must carry two or more passengers and allow for a 100-mile range.

• amp, Blue Ash, Ohio (Electric)  

• Aptera Motors, Vista, California (Electric)  

• Edison2, Charlottesville, Virginia (E85) 

• Envera, Mill Valley, California (Gasoline)  

• FVT Racing, Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada (Gasoline) 

• K-Way MOTUS, Turin, Italy (Gasoline)  

• OptaMotive, San Jose, California (Electric)  

• RaceAbout Association, Helsinki, Finland (Electric)

• Spira, Banglamung, Chonburi, Thailand (Gasoline) 

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

• Tata Motors Limited, Coventry, United Kingdom (Electric) 

• Team EVI, Mooresville, North Carolina (Electric)  

• Team EVX, Dallas, Texas (Electric)  

• Team FourSight, Morgantown, West Virginia (Electric) 

• TW4XP, Rosenthal, Germany (Electric)  

• West Philly Hybrid X (EVX), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Biodiesel) 

• Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington (Gasoline) 

• X-Tracer Team Switzerland, Uster, Switzerland (Electric) 

• ZAP, Santa Rosa, California (Electric) 

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