The Quest for 100MPG

11 Apr, 2007 By: Jeffrey Rowe

The race will soon be on to determine who can design and bring a truly energy-efficient vehicle to market -- and to the eager masses.

At a time when several major North American car manufacturers seem to be hemming and hawing at proposed fuel efficiency increases, along comes an organization that wants to push the envelope in making much more efficient automotive vehicles possible. The X PRIZE Foundation, the organization behind the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE that successfully challenged teams to build the first private spacecraft to leave the earth’s atmosphere (and won by Burt Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, in October 2004), is taking a step toward launching the AXP (Automotive X PRIZE), which it hopes will inspire the creation of super-efficient vehicles with fuel economy exceeding 100 miles per gallon.

This challenge comes as consumers and government regulators are putting more pressure on the auto industry to enhance fuel economy, which has remained stagnant at a 2004 collective average of 20.8 miles per gallon and below the collective high of 22.1 mpg way back in 1988. This decrease is largely due to the increases in engine efficiency that have been "spent" on increased vehicle power, acceleration and weight, rather than on increased fuel economy.

This competition is based less on just building concept cars and more on the following harsh realities:

  • Today's oil consumption is unsustainable, endangering our health and the economic, political and social stability of the world (40% of world oil output fuels the automotive industry).
  • Automotive emissions significantly contribute to global warming and climate change (U.S. cars and light trucks are responsible for 45% of the carbon dioxide emitted by automobiles globally).
  • Beyond hybrids, which are stopgap measures at best, there are no mainstream consumer choices for clean, super-efficient vehicles that meet market needs for price, size, capability, image, safety and performance.
  • The automotive industry is boxed in by legislation, regulation, labor issues, manufacturing costs, legacy costs, franchise laws, obsolete technology and consumer attitudes. These forces have blocked breakthroughs and this competition provides a great opportunity for technological change, thus the major impetus behind the AXP.

The current development system employed by most major automakers does build advanced concept cars, but almost always stops there. In fact, several cars have been built that could travel more than 100 miles on one gallon of fuel, but they were expensive and used only for demonstration and were never intended for mass production. For its part, the auto industry must be willing to adopt the next generation of vehicle technologies, such as advanced power trains, lightweight materials and renewable fuels. And there are already some other competitions that showcase extraordinary feats of fuel economy. However, none have resulted in practical solutions that make their way to consumers. On the other hand, the Automotive X PRIZE competition focuses on tangible results -- the creation of practical, clean and super-efficient vehicles that people can actually buy.

The Ground Rules

Last week, draft guidelines were released at the New York International Automobile Show, where the AXP outlined the independent competition. The AXP also invited interested teams -- major auto companies and other organizations -- to provide letters of intent to participate as the AXP moves toward an official launch later this year.

The draft guidelines outline a challenging multiyear competition with a $10 million cash purse. Teams first are required to meet stringent standards up front, to prove that they are capable of designing and building production-capable, super-efficient vehicles. Once built, the vehicles then will compete in a series of rigorous stage races that will test the vehicles under real-world driving requirements and conditions. Vehicles will compete in two different categories:

  • mainstream (4+ passengers, 4+ wheels)
  • alternative (2+ passengers, no requirement on number of wheels).

Winning vehicles must exceed 100 miles per gallon or its equivalent, while also meeting rigorous emission requirements. On top of that, though, the AXP organizers want to be sure that vehicles entered in the contest, which will compete in races in 2009 to determine the winner, are commercially viable. Entries must be feasible for production, and not just one-off concept vehicles. Additionally, each team must prepare a business plan for producing at least 10,000 of the vehicles at a cost comparable to that of currently available cars.

Before it began publicizing a draft of the rules for the competition, the foundation had fielded inquiries from more than 1,000 potential contestants and institutions willing to participate. Several major automakers have also expressed interest in monitoring the contest, including some that are considering competing themselves.

The competition guidelines include the following major provisions:

  • The AXP will be open to viable cars capable of reaching the marketplace, not concept cars or science projects.
  • The international, independent competition will be open to multiple fuels and technologies.
  • The guidelines introduce a new yardstick to replace the outdated MPG. The new standard is miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe), which takes into account energy equivalence, no matter what the energy source.

So, the race will soon be on to develop a commercially viable car that can travel 100 miles on a gallon of gasoline. Ideally, the top teams would see their designs purchased and used in some form by automakers. However, no major automotive company has yet determined its level of participation in the contest.  I assume that several will pay close attention to it before committing. Viability for mass production will probably prove as important as demonstrating the technologies for capturing the attention and interest of the major automakers.

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