The cars of the future have shown themselves, but it's not clear whether Americans will like them.
Yesterday, contest organizers crowned the winners of the first Progressive Automotive X Prize, a one-year race to design an ultra-efficient car that's "safe, affordable and desirable."
Among the final contestants were cars getting 80, 120, even 180 miles per gallon equivalent. They assumed strange shapes, some sprawling on the ground like stingrays, others compact as books. They ran on batteries, ethanol and gasoline. In the end, it was a gasoline engine that triumphed.
The Very Light Car, built by Virginia company Edison2, won the $5 million first prize with 100 mpg and the lowest carbon footprint of all contestants.
Most interesting of all, its gasoline engine, running on E85 ethanol, beat out dozens of electric and hybrid cars, vehicles currently thought to be among the most efficient available.
It's the latest splash in an ongoing tussle with the auto industry: Exactly what is technologically possible, and what are people willing to buy?
According to environmental and consumer groups, the answer is this: Current technology can go a long way, and people will pay more for high-mpg cars. "We're not talking rocket science here. We're talking smart engineering, good auto design," said David Friedman, who directs the Clean Vehicle Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
UCS is a member of the Go 60 MPG coalition, a group of environmentalists campaigning to make that the next federal target for fuel economy. Currently, the federal government's corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) target is 35 mpg by 2016. Agencies haven't set the standard for the next stage, which extends to 2025.
The coalition said Americans are on its side: It presented a poll in which two-thirds of respondents favored the 60 mpg target, even if it raised a car's price by $3,000. According to the coalition, that premium would be recouped in four years at current gas prices (E&ENews PM, Sept. 16).
Pound for pound, cars today are far more efficient than their ancestors. But car companies have generally used the fuel efficiency to make cars bigger, heavier and faster.
'Energy density' is what counts
Friedman said auto companies should spend the next 15 years adopting known technologies that save fuel -- many of which are featured in the X Prize contest.
"While these [X Prize] vehicles may not be what we're going to see on the road in the next decade, they really do point to a lot of the ingredients that we need to get to 60 miles per gallon, or more, in the next 15 years," he said.
The auto industry panned the 60 mpg target yesterday. "Just last year automakers supported reaching 35+ mpg by 2016, and before we have even achieved those new heights, the calls have begun to almost double mileage," said Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers. "Clearly we live in a period of extreme political volatility, and some groups are promoting their political wish list prior to the elections," he said.
For automakers, the question is how to do it. They have offered more efficient gasoline cars in recent years, but some are betting big on electric and plug-in hybrid cars.
That works well with the White House's support for electric vehicles. But as a matter of chemistry, batteries have far to go before they can rival gasoline.
Energy storage is measured by how much energy can be packed into the smallest mass. Gasoline, which resembles body fat and packs immense numbers of calories into a small space, has far greater "energy density" than even the most advanced batteries.
That's evident in the X Prize's winning car. Oliver Kuttner, Edison2's CEO, said he named the company after Thomas Edison because he had accepted the "conventional wisdom that an electric or hybrid drive is the key to efficiency."
Then he realized something: The Chevy Volt, a plug-in electric car, travels 40 miles on electricity, thanks to a battery weighing 1,000 pounds. Meanwhile, his Volkswagen Jetta travels 40 miles on a gallon of gas -- about 9 pounds.
"So we avoided the hundreds and hundreds of pounds of batteries needed for an electric, and chose a conventional internal combustion engine running on E85," he said in a press release.
Corvette designer makes fuel-sipper
Edison2 didn't stop there. It used ultra-light carbon fiber for the chassis, and it honed the body to minimize drag. Its front wheels weigh 6 pounds each; they're designed to crumple in the event of a crash, an innovation that may itself be worth more than the X Prize, according to Consumer Reports.
The car's so light that a mere brush, 8 pounds of force, moves it.
The X Prize's technical director, Steve Wesoloski, said that "to push Edison2's vehicle down the road takes less force than it would take you to push a four-legged table across a carpeted floor."
But how would it fare in a collision? The car passed X Prize's safety tests, according to Wesoloski, because its team members called on their experience with race cars -- light, uncomfortable, crash-ready race cars.
Lighter materials and smoothed aerodynamics were a common theme in the contest. One team from Thailand showed a photo of a team member lifting half the chassis of its vehicle off the ground.
"We really didn't see huge technological leaps. The technology in the vehicles in the competition is largely available on the market today," Wesolowski said.
He spent 20 years at General Motors designing Corvettes and working in the racing department. When the economy dove, he found himself looking for a job. Colleagues at X Prize offered him a welcome change from auto-industry conventions.
Car companies suffer from "inertia" and bureaucracy, he said, but the X Prize gives people a clear objective and then lets them achieve it however they want. Now, a number of the teams are in touch with the industry to share their innovations.
But even if it's technically possible to beat 60 mpg, there's another variable: consumers.
Small may not be beautiful for consumers
"Is it achievable? Yes. Question is, are people going to want to drive the cars the manufacturers are going to have to put out to do it?" said Kevin Riddell, an automotive analyst for J.D. Power and Associates.
People are buying more fuel-efficient cars, he said, but gingerly. Instead of buying SUVs, they are buying "crossovers" -- cars that are slightly smaller and get better fuel efficiency, but are still pretty big.
When car companies have to meet CAFE standards, they're not measured by what they make, but by what they sell. If they're selling many crossovers, for example, they also have to sell high-efficiency cars to make up for it.
Two obvious candidates: electric-drive cars and super-efficient gasoline cars.
The former remain pricey, and there's not enough charging infrastructure to ease people's concerns about "range anxiety," the fear that they may drive farther than the car is able to go on a single charge, Riddell said.
As for the second approach, he said, "odds are, at least using a standard engine, it's going to be a very small vehicle, and most people will not want to buy it."