Wrapping Up the X-prize: The Race to 100 MPG

By Paul Eisenstein

Today’s Machining World Archives August 2010 Volume 06 Issue 06

Race to 100 MPG

The disastrous blow-out of BP’s well in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to have a devastating, long-term impact on everything from marine life to the region’s tourist industry. If there’s an upside to the murk of spilled crude it’s the way the catastrophe is putting a renewed spotlight on the nation’s dependence on petroleum, whether imported or domestic.

“We are concentrated on a single source of energy,” says Eric Cahill, an energy researcher and now the senior director of the Auto X-Prize, but whether you believe in global warming, worry about the cost of importing crude or simply fear the potential for more disasters like the BP spill, there is increasing pressure to find alternatives to that primary energy source. Nowhere is that more visible than in the auto industry, where the strain on the global oil supply is already apparent.

In the U.S., the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standard was recently raised 30 percent, and is set to reach 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. Skeptics contend that increase could add significantly to the cost of the typical automobile, perhaps as much as $9,000, according to a new report by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Science.

Cars get ready for the knockout stage

But not everyone buys that argument. And that includes the organizers of what is now known as the Progressive Auto X-Prize. Formally unveiled at the 2008 New York Auto Show, it’s a follow-up to the original Ansari X-Prize that helped spur the first private sub-orbital spaceflight in 2004. But its roots go even deeper, says Cahill, back to the early days of aviation, when the Orteig Prize helped spur Charles Lindbergh to make the first successful solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

“We’re not only hoping to accelerate the pace of change,” says Cahill, “but also serve as a broker of information to the consumer.”

The Orteig Prize carried a reward of what was, at the time, a princely sum of $25,000. For the winners of the Progressive Auto X-Prize there’s a significantly larger purse—$10 million in total, divided between two categories of vehicles which must exceed 100 mpg or its equivalent. Five million dollars is allotted to the winner of the Mainstream category, for which cars must have 4+ wheels and 4+ passenger capacity. Another $5 million is allotted for the Alternative category in which the car must ft 2+ passengers but has no requirement for number of wheels. The Alternative category is split into two sub-categories—one for side-by-side seating and one for tandem seating—the winner of each receives $2.5 million.

It may sound like a lot, says Cahill, but even today’s most conventional automobiles can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to design, engineer and put into production. “We know this won’t be enough to build a car but we’re putting a marker out there. It engages the entrepreneur and encourages the human need to compete.” If the Auto X-Prize also encourages demand, well, the entire better.

While building a better automobile may seem child’s play compared to putting a man in orbit, the goal of topping 100 miles per gallon is no simple task. While skeptics contend that Detroit and its import competitors have no interest in increasing fuel economy, ignoring the stepped-up role mileage plays in today’s car buying market, most makers are quick to trumpet even the most marginal improvements, especially if they beat the competition.

But the gains of the last few decades have been relatively easy, compared to what will be needed to move ahead. Makers have reduced engine displacement, shifted to direct injection, swapped out four-speed gearboxes for 6, 7, even 8-speed transmissions, and adopted the sort of aerodynamic enhancing tricks once reserved for Formula One race cars.

Vehicles entered in the X-Prize are taking things significantly further. The adoption of an assortment of advanced power trains, most relying on some sort of electrification along with advanced lightweight materials, reflects the fundamental automotive truism that mass is the enemy of mileage.

Cornell 100 + MPG team’s Redshift vehicle.

By the time registration closed in February 2009, 111 teams paid the up-front $5,000 fee, some fielding more than one vehicle design. “We’ve been narrowing the field ever since,” notes Cahill, largely through the competition’s strict initial guidelines, followed by a series of rigorous checkpoints. By January 2010, the field had been narrowed to 43 teams, which was further trimmed to 28 before the spring “Shakedown Stage.” Only about 20 made it to the “Knockout Qualifying Stage,” in June, and as this story was heading to print, around 10 made it to the final shakeouts. The three winners will be crowned in September, during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

The three winners will have to do more than just deliver a high-mileage prototype, organizers stress. “The point of this prize,” says Cahill “is that they have to be commercializable.” As with the Ansari X-Prize, which is expected to lead to commercial space fights, the Progressive Auto X-Prize is intended to actually get 100 mpg vehicles into production—and, most importantly, at a reasonably affordable price.

“The potential is here,” contends Gary Starr, founder and product development manager of Zap, a California-based electric vehicle manufacturer that, according to several observers, has a good chance of making it at least to the finals of the Auto X-Prize. “It’s always nice to win,” Starr says, though he doesn’t feel that losing the X-Prize would be a major setback, since it would still shine a spotlight on his company’s efforts.

The company’s car, Alias, is one of the more radical designs entered into the competition. It’s a 2-seat three-wheeler—two in front, one in the rear—that relies on both battery power and the use of composite body components to maximize its range. It also delivers some surprisingly upscale touches, like leather seats and GPS navigation, for a target price of under $35,000.

The X-Prize entrants cover a gamut of designs and technologies, as shown by the alternate power category’s second class for tandem seating configurations—the approach taken by the Edison2 team with its entry, the Very Light Car (95). Hailed as one of the most stylish entries in the competition, the dart-nosed VLC uses a modified internal combustion engine running on E85 ethanol, but the key to its fuel efficiency is a focus on extremely lightweight body and chassis components, as well as efficient aerodynamics.

The Edison team has taken the unusual approach of entering cars into both alternative subcategories and the mainstream category of the Auto X-Prize competition. For the Side-by-Side and Mainstream classes the team adopted a racing-style design with outrigger wheels, but all use similar, ethanol-powered internal combustion technology.

Very Light Car from the Edison2 team

While there are a number of commercial enterprises competing for the $10 million X-Prize, the venture has drawn a number of student entries from universities such as Cornell, and even a high school—the Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering, a part of West Philadelphia High School, based in one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city. The students are nothing if not ambitious, as they’re among the few teams to field multiple entries. One approach, the EVX GT, converts a conventional Ford Focus to run on biodiesel. The other, the EVX Focus, is a lithium-ion-powered plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle.

The Cornell entry, meanwhile, survived the preliminary cuts and was, as this story went to press, heading towards the final cut. Dubbed Redshift, the vehicle starts with an entirely new mini-car design that relies on a diesel-based plug-in hybrid electric power train.

A number of teams have opted for designing their own vehicles from the ground up. Some, like Redshift, still manage to look relatively conventional, but others, such as the K-Way Motus, stretch the limits of automotive styling. Originally started by the Polytechnic University of Turin, and later pursued by two independent start-ups, this Alternative/Tandem entry looks like a motorcycle (though there are actually two closely-set wheels up front); with an enclosed body that eliminates the need for wearing helmets. An active tilting system allows the Motus to be driven like a car but still lean into corners like a motorcycle. The gasoline-powered hybrid drive train is driven by a pair of motors inside the front wheel hubs.

If there’s any disappointment in the competition, it’s the lack of big-name players. But organizers knew up-front that major manufacturers might be reluctant to reveal proprietary technology.

One that did decide to participate is Tata Motors, the ambitious Indian automaker best known for its $2,500 Nano. Tata has recently made several moves into electrification, and is competing in the Auto X-Prize with its Indica Vista EV X, a battery-electric vehicle slotted into the Alternative/Side-by-Side class. It’s a modified version of a conventional, gasoline-powered Tata Indica 5-door hatchback, running on lithium-ion batteries.

While some teams have pushed the envelope almost to the breaking point, Tata shows how some of the X-Prize entrants might be mistaken for conventional automobiles on the road today. For example, it would take a close look to realize that the entry from AMP isn’t just an off-the-assembly-line Saturn Sky. The Ohio electric vehicle maker’s auto is what’s known as a “glider.” But what starts out as one of General Motors’ two-seat roadsters is stripped of its factory power train, which is replaced by AMP’s electric driveline. A set of lithium-ion batteries powers the AMP prototype’s two electric motors, delivering the equivalent of more than 100 miles per gallon, even with surprisingly peppy performance and a top speed of 100 miles per hour.

The glider approach has its advantages, says AMP’s Mike Detkas. It allows the firm to deliver a vehicle that meets another X-Prize rule, that the cars meet current U.S. safety requirements. It also provides the sort of ride and comfort that a well-established maker like GM can readily deliver. “We like to think we’re standing on the shoulders of giants,” he says.

Those giants haven’t been all that open to new entrants, cautions George Peterson, of the California consulting firm, AutoPacifc, Inc. But the demand for cleaner, more fuel-efficient products has opened up a window, albeit one he says may be short-lived, for new players to join the established automotive order. Some alternative energy based car companies, like Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive, decided not to participate in the Progressive Auto X-Prize competition. But they could reap the rewards if the event boosts public awareness.

Michigan Governor Granholm and X-Prize CEO Peter Diamandis in the AMP’s Sky.

Even established makers are exploring the potential for new, green technologies. GM will launch its first extended-range electric vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt, late this year. Using a controversial standard proposed by the EPA, Volt would get the equivalent of 230 mpg, though what will matter most to potential buyers is its ability to run for up to 40 miles on a charge and then switch to an onboard gasoline engine that eliminates the so-called “range anxiety” associated with pure battery-electric vehicles. Meanwhile, Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and a variety of other mainstream manufacturers plan to launch advanced, battery-based vehicles of their own in the coming year.

“I’ve got faith in the market to solve the problem,” insists X-Prize director Cahill, whether it takes new players or the established order. As the world watches the devastation in the Gulf of Mexico, the market will come under increasing pressure to deliver a workable solution to our dependency on oil as quickly as possible.

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