The judging begins this month for 136 vehicles competing for the Progressive Automotive X Prize. Some are sleek and futuristic, such as Aptera's plug-in 2e. It is so streamlined that it looks like it only bothers with a highway to reach takeoff velocity.
Designed by Steve Fambro, an electrical engineer who became frustrated with Southern California's slow-moving freeway lanes, the Aptera is a three-wheeled hybrid-electric car with a tough carbon-fiber body. Under California law, it is classified as a motorcycle, which allows it to escape gridlock by zipping along the high-occupancy vehicle lanes during rush hour.
According to information that the Carlsbad, Calif., company has provided to the X Prize, the two-seater can get more than 130 miles per gallon. This is possible partly because prototypes have been slimmed down to a mere 850 pounds.
Other entrants are more meat-and-potatoes vehicles, like the plug-in hybrid designed by a team of high school students and teachers from West Philadelphia High School. The works are tucked into a Ford Focus chassis, but unlike the Ford, it can run on electricity and either gasoline or biobutanol, a renewable fuel.
The rules are tough: Cars must get at least 100 miles per gallon equivalent of gasoline, their greenhouse gas emissions cannot exceed 200 grams per mile, and they are limited to 14 different fuel sources, including gasoline, diesel, electricity, E85 and E10 ethanol, and other renewable fuels.
Commercial viability, however, may be the most important guideline, according to Eric Cahill, senior director of the Progressive Automotive X Prize. The team with the winning vehicle must be able to produce the cars at a marketable scale, or 10,000 automobiles a year.
If you don't have a plan for mass production, don't enter
"These cannot be science projects," Cahill said. "The bottom line ultimately is, can these vehicles be viable in the marketplace in the near term? That's the real litmus test," he said.
The first round of judging will narrow down the teams eligible to move into the more rigorous competitive tests scheduled to take place between May and August 2010. Those tests include being graded for fuel efficiency, performance and durability under a variety of conditions, among them urban driving, hills and bad weather, Cahill explained. The winner of the prize, sponsored by the privately funded X Prize Foundation, will be announced in September 2010.
The West Philly car is entered in the mainstream class, which requires vehicles to carry four or more passengers, have four or more wheels and offer a 200-mile range. The winner will be awarded half of the $10 million prize, according to the X Prize Foundation.
The Aptera is entered into the alternative class, in which vehicles must carry two or more passengers and allow for a 100-mile range, but there are no constraints on the number of a wheels they can have. The top two alternative class winners will split the remaining $5 million.
"The goal is essentially to put up a relatively small prize. It seems big to the average Joe -- $10 million -- but it draws in a factor of 10 [in] capital," Cahill said. He estimates that the contest could draw in hundreds of millions in investment, resulting in billions of dollars' worth of commercial industry.
Major automakers are not at the starting line
Despite the competition's emphasis on mass production capability, major automakers are not among the 111 teams that have registered to compete.
Timing is an issue for established auto manufacturers, which are focusing on survival, given the collapse of the economy and the auto industry, Cahill said. "While they'd love to participate, their energies are focused on keeping their head above the water." The foundation, he said, created a demonstration division to entice established automakers to participate "in a fairly inexpensive way."
The demonstration division, unlike the competition division, is intended to showcase high-efficiency vehicles from established auto manufacturers, like the electric Chevy Volt. Participating carmakers must already be selling validated four-wheel vehicles in the United States or Europe at quantities greater than 10,000 per year, according to the foundation.
The real competitors include smaller companies, like Tesla Motors -- the California-based maker of luxury electric sports cars -- and India's Tata Motors. They will be up against teams from universities and high schools, such as the West Philly Hybrid X Team.
This team -- composed of 10 to 12 "die hard" students, according to Simon Hauger, former math and science teacher and current director of the team -- grew out of an after-school program that began 11 years ago.
Since the program's inception, participating students and teachers have built and raced electric, hybrid and renewable-fuel vehicles in various competitions, some of which they have won, thereby positioning the team to enter vehicles in both the mainstream and alternative classes of the X Prize.
"One of the really exciting things about the auto X prize [is that it's] not an über-engineering competition," Hauger said, calling it a practical competition that focuses on the vehicles' safety, appearance and price tag.
The West Philly team took the competition's criteria one step further by adding one of their own: Their vehicles must be 100 percent American-made.
The availability of "green" American jobs means a lot to this team's students, who attend a high school that serves one of Philadelphia's more disadvantaged neighborhoods, according to Hauger.
Finding funding for the competition has been difficult, he said.
"I think the most challenging part of the competition is to raise money to compete at this level," Hauger said, adding that the team is "still struggling" despite receiving a state grant and small private donations. The team's school district allows the team to use school buildings after hours to work on the cars.
Meanwhile, the team is working with the LeBow College of Business at Drexel University to develop a business plan for producing the vehicles. "They took our basic desires and ran with it and created a phenomenal business plan," Hauger said.
New business models needed for the long haul
Although funding might be problematic for smaller teams, like the West Philly team, with less capital, the flow of private capital is ultimately what makes this competition unique, according to Cahill.
The prize draws media attention, which, in turn, attracts funding. "That's ultimately what accelerates the innovation," Cahill said, adding that alternative fuels and batteries have not received the kind of funding needed to improve them for large-scale use.
He pointed to the development of lithium-ion batteries as an example, acknowledging that although billions of dollars are now being spent on this technology, the attention it is receiving is a relatively recent "phenomenon."
"When you've got billions of dollars coming in to improve these batteries, a decade from now, it wouldn't surprise me if lithium-ions were a fraction of what they cost now and could go twice as far," Cahill said.
The automobile industry is starting to see that kind of money flow toward innovation. Already, Congress has allocated $2.4 billion of the $787 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the development of plug-in vehicles and the advanced batteries they rely on for power.
The program is part of President Obama's goal of putting 1 million electric vehicles on the nation's roads by 2015.
While the competition calls for the creation of affordable vehicles in the mainstream class, the cost of buying an electric vehicle still remains beyond the financial means of many Americans, Cahill noted.
"I think there is potential for innovative new business models that might make this far more palatable to the American wallet," he said, pointing to Palo Alto, Calif.-based company Better Place as an example.
Better Place offers a business model that would allow electric car owners to lease and exchange the batteries that power their vehicles by way of a network of roadside stations.
If green cars are available, "a more convenient market will take care of the rest," said Michael Granoff, head of oil independence policies with Better Place, while speaking at an electric car congressional briefing last week.