The automotive X Prize

The X Prize Foundation are the people who encouraged private experiments in space flight, a great way to encourage innovation outside lumbering government-sponsored space programs. The scale of the investment needed to put a rover on Mars, let alone a person on the moon, is so vast compared to the likely immediate reward that heavy-duty work in space is likely to stay the domain of governments for a long, long time, but there’s no reason why they should have all the fun. The Richard-Branson–backed winners of the prize with their SpaceShipOne spent more than the $10-million prize money on their effort, but they faced serious competition from the (Canadian) Da Vinci Group, made up mostly of volunteers.

Now, the foundation is offering a prize (amount yet to be determined) for teams that design genuinely commercializable models of cars that can get 100 miles to the gallon (about 42 kilometres per litre) of gasoline or equivalent fuel. There are plenty of concept cars demonstrating this capability, and generations of engineering students know how to make solar-powered coffins that can go for days without a drop of fossil fuel at all, but making something at a reasonable cost that consumers will want to buy is the hard part.

The multi-million dollar prize will be awarded to the teams in two categories who build cars that get at least 100 miles per gallon of gasoline (or its equivalent with other fuel types).

The first category is for a “mainstream class” automobile that can carry four or more passengers, has four or more wheels, and has the size and general capabilities that consumers are used to. There is also an “alternate class” category for a two or more person car with no size or wheel limits.

I love that they’re offering a prize in the latter category, in recognition of the fact that cars need not always be as they have always been.

That said, commenter David Wenbart at the automotive X Prize blog argues that

Requiring an emphasis on overall vehicle design, rather than on the only thing that really matters – the powerplant – is a distraction which will make the AXP a parade of sleek-looking, plastic “hangar queens”, that business plans alone will not push into the general marketplace.

A successful new engine, carburetor, fuel processor, etc. should not have to have the excess baggage of reproducing the rest of the vehicle as part of their qualification package. Let all such technologies compete, using any commercial vehicle that has been in general mass production, in the current or previous model years.

My instincts say that Wenbart is right about how best to pursue automotive innovation as a matter of policy, but it seems to me the greatest value of the prize is in making its objective seem sexy. Getting to space all on your own is sexy; designing a better shuttle wing isn’t. Designing a comfortable car that gets a hundred miles a gallon is sexy; nothing centred on the word “carburetor” can be.

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