Here’s a surprise: The biggest winner in the $10-million Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE competition, which is designed to inspire a new generation of low-polluting cars, is not an electric car, but a car that weighs less than 1,000 pounds and is powered by an internal combustion engine.
The car is known, fittingly, as the Very Light Car #98, and it won the $5 million prize in the “mainstream” category, which required cars to seat four people, run on four wheels and have a driving range of at least 200 miles. The Very Light Car runs on E85, a blend of ethanol and gasoline, and it was built by a team known as Edison2, led by a German-born entrepreneur named Oliver Kuttner and based in Charlottesville, Va.
The Edison2 Very Light Car bested 111 competing teams and 136 cars from around the world. All sought to build practical safe and super fuel-efficient vehicles capable of achieving 100 miles per gallon or the energy equivalent—a threshold that the Very Light Car just managed to achieve, performing at 100.3 MPGe.
The team that developed the Very Light Car, which includes race car drivers who have won at Le Mans, Daytona, and Sebring winners, decided to stick with an internal combustion engine because batteries add weight, as well as cost. While praising electric cars as “here to stay” on its blog, Edison2 says:
Currently, however, electrics cars have real issues. Batteries are heavy, big and costly. With electric drives cars get heavier, performance suffers and costs go up.
Kuttner, a race car driver, said the car, which is made of low-cost and recycleable materials, could potentially go on sale for $20,000 – if it reaches the market. There are no current plans for mass production, but Kuttner said he’s talked with several big companies, including General Motors, which tested the Edison2 in its wind tunnels. One obvious hurdle to be overcome is safety–the car isn’t equipped with air bags or other standard safety features and, presumably, it would come out on the losing end in a crash with a much heavier car or truck.
Two battery-powered cars each won $2.5 million each in prize money. Li-ion Motors Corp.’s Wave II, built by a startup based in Charlotte, N.C., won in the “alternative side-by-side” category with a car that delivered 187 MPGe. This category included two-seaters where the driver and passenger sit side by side.
A car known as the E-Tracer 79, built by a Swiss company called X-Tracer and created by Arnold Wagner, a former SwissAir jumbo jet pilot and aircraft designer, won in the “alternative tandem class.” This category also includes cars that seat two people, but one can sit behind the other. While the E-Tracer may look more like a motorcycle than a car (see below), it has two additional wheels that fold into the car; they drop down at slower speeds to provide stability.
The E-Tracer was the efficiency king of the competition, registering an eye-popping 205.3 MPGe. (Results were verified by experts including U.S. Department of Energy labs.) It looks like the E-Tracer could be fun to drive, too!
This morning, I attended the X-Prize awards ceremony, which was held outdoors in Washington and, oddly, featured a bunch of dignitaries, including House Speaker Pelosi, long-winded Congressman Ed Markey, and a DOE official, most of whom had little or nothing to do with the prize.
The contrast was unintended but hard to miss—between a national government that is paralyzed when it comes to climate and energy, and the inventiveness, creativity and energy of startups, engineers and entrepreneurs unleashed by a mere $10 million prize, which amounts to chump change in the federal budget.
Offer the right incentives, in other words, and human ingenuity can do wonders.
“We’re living in a day and time where literally anything is possible,” said Peter Diamandis, the X PRIZE Foundation Chairman and CEO. “A man or woman can go out and build a spaceship or a 100 mile per gallon car. This is only the beginning.”
Not to belabor the point, but neither of the government-backed automakers, GM or Chrysler, got into the contest.
Then again, the winners are in no sense amateurs or garage mechanics. The aerodynamic steel frame of the Edison2 car, for example, was designed by Barnaby Wainfan, a Northrop Grumman aerodynamics fellow, while the head designer for the team was Ron Mathis, who worked on the R10 for Audi Sport North America. The X-Prize judges said of the car:
More like an airplane than a car, Edison2 uses a highly innovative light-weight, low mass hub-mounted suspension for its aerodynamically flared four wheels. Its low total mass of 830 pounds – nearly a quarter of the average car weight- is a tribute of engineering strength and packaging utility.
Let’s hope Diamandis is right that this is just a beginning. The X-Prize’s first prize, for personal space transportation, gives reason for hope: It was awarded in 2004, and has since inspired an industry. Just today, Boeing said it has plans to fly tourists into space.
Below are a couple of snapshots I took at the X-Prize ceremonies. If you are reading this on Thursday, you can watch a one-hour documentary called “X PRIZE Cars: Accelerating The Future” tonight (September 16) at 9PM ET/6PM PT on the National Geographic Channel.