Start Your Engines
On November 19, at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize announced its first 22 contenders. Two are "accepted but remain confidential" at the moment, hence only 20 are listed here. These lucky teams, from 10 states and five countries, now have Registered Team status in their bid for $10 million in prize money.
According to the draft guidelines, teams have to meet "arduous" standards to prove that their cars can actually be built as production vehicles, and they must achieve the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon with very low emissions. There are both "mainstream" (four passengers, four wheels) and "alternative" (two passengers, no wheel requirements). There will be a series of staged competitions in various cities, starting in New York in September of 2009. At least 14 cities are said to be interested in hosting the stage races, which will include competitions in urban, suburban and rural settings.
By August, more than 120 teams, from 28 states and 17 countries, had announced their interest in taking part. The deadline for new competitors is January 1, 2009. The contest concludes in 2010. Its goal is to "inspire a new generation of viable, super-efficient vehicles that help break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change."
The two-passenger, three-wheeled Aptera 2e seems to have been borrowed from the Jetsons' motor pool, and looks more like an airplane without wings than it does a car. But Aptera claims the composite body on its space-age EV has a very low co-efficiency of drag, and can travel 100 miles on a charge (the equivalent, the company says, of 300 miles per gallon). Pre-orders are being accepted for the car, which is supposed to achieve zero to 60 in less than 10 seconds and have a top speed of more than 85 mph. The tentative price is $26,900 for the electric version, and $29,990 for the forthcoming plug-in hybrid version (Aptera 2h).
The Aptera combines solid engineering with space-age visuals. It's certainly not the most practical grocery-getter, so its fate in the market is a bit uncertain.
The original Avion was built in 1984 from components located in scrapyards. It is a bright red streamlined sports car with gullwing doors that fold up and an estimated 100 miles per gallon on diesel fuel. The key to the aluminum- and composite-bodied car is its lightness. The Avion, powered by a Mercedes diesel, weighs only 1,500 pounds.
Inventor Craig Henderson, president of Avion Car Company, thinks it could be mass-produced for $20,000 and run on biodiesel or even natural gas. The Avion is very cool, in a 1980s kind of way. Taking a hand-built one-off vehicle to the peak of the Auto X Prize competition would be a tall order but Henderson appears to have some very enthusiastic confederates.
Team Bob and Doug do not give much away. "We want to promote a design for personal transportation that is safe, environmentally friendly, fuel efficient, and cost effective," they say. "We believe that a car that achieves 100 miles per gallon does not need to be prototypical, because the technology is currently available. Toward that end, we intend to use off-the-shelf components that are currently available in the market. Our plan is to convert an existing compact car to meet the fuel efficiency requirements while not re-inventing the production process." BD1, apparently based on a Saturn sedan, would appear to be a diesel hybrid.
The team does have the necessary experience. Robert McNeil has a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Central Florida, and a graduate degree in systems engineering from the University of Florida. Doug Hungerford, an electrical engineer, also graduated from the University of Central Florida.
Edison *2 - Mass Management (Virginia)
The Mass Management team comes out of varied fields, including business, building design, construction management, auto racing, design and aerodynamics. "We pride ourselves in quality and out-of-the-box thinking," they say. "By use of new packaging and lightweight construction methods, we intend to reach our goal using better applications of existing technology."
There's some good experience there. Oliver Kuttner, the team leader, has designed sports racing prototypes for Ford. Ron Mathis worked on the Ford GTR, as well as Audi American Le Mans cars. Kevin Doran is a five-time winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona and Barnaby Wainfan is an aerodynamics specialist at Northrop Grumman. These folks are saying little or nothing about their car, other than that it will run on "gasoline or natural gas."
Enermotion (Ontario, Canada)
The EnerMotion XP 100, an advanced plug-in hybrid design with regenerative braking, is being built by a Canadian team with considerable engineering experience building plug-in kits. It has several high-profile partners. "Most of our intellectual property is guarded at this stage," admits President Jack MacDonnell. "I suspect this is the case with other teams too."
According to MacDonnell, the XP 100 is based on an existing vehicle chassis and includes an "adaptive" controller, energy recovery, sustainable energy charging, next-generation regenerative braking and emission reduction.
"The X Prize is a great opportunity to showcase energy and motion options to North America," MacDonnell says. "Once the dust settles from political changes, carbon taxes are implemented, green projects become mainstream not just PR fluff, and the big three auto makers bring some excitement back to showrooms in Canada and the U.S., EnerMotion will be prepared. We're busting at the seams wanting to share more of this vision and provide more XP100 specs."
Envera has developed an engine with variable compression ratios that the company says "has very high efficiency levels at [low] power levels, enabling large gains in vehicle mileage to be attained." Its Auto X car features a version of that engine built into a hybrid driveline, plus a lightweight and aerodynamic body. We want to know more about this one; information is fairly sketchy so far.
Kinetic Vehicles (Oregon)
This team has an appealing handmade quality to it. Mother Earth News is the sole sponsor. Jack McCornack is a do-it-yourselfer who plans to build his own very lightweight body (using old Lotus and Lola racing designs for inspiration) and is sourcing suspension and transmission components from a rusted-out mid-80s Toyota Corolla station wagon. Under the hood of "Max" is a turbocharged 1,100-cc Kubota engine rated at 32 horsepower. It can run on biodiesel or straight vegetable oil.
Originally the plans were for a cool open car, but that's evolving. "Sadly, my back-of-envelope calculations are pretty convincing that we'll need a roof to reach freeway speeds at 100 mpg," McCornack says. "Of course, I've been wrong before, and this body is already in progress, so we'll see how it goes with an open cockpit. But we'll probably have to bite the bullet and build a coupe, which means doors, windows and other budget challenges."
Kinetix Motors (California)
Kinetix Motors is hitting the road with a slippery, all-original design called the E4 Sport Hatch. The E4, Kinetix says, "has been designed to represent what the average consumer needs and wants in a vehicle: looks, practicality, safety, performance." It's designed to sell for under $25,000.
It's a diesel hybrid, with two 40-horsepower, 15-kilowatt electric wheel motors, a 25-horsepower direct-injection diesel engine, low rolling-resistance tires, and a weight of only 1,562 pounds. Zero to 60 will be achieved in 6.1 seconds, and it can reach 95 mph. Quite a car, if they can pull it off. But that's a big if.
Lydell Industries (New York)
Team Adiabatic says it has its own "engine, transmission and hybrid technology and components that significantly improve current art," resulting in "75 miles per gallon (mpg) highway and 125 mpg city on regular pump gas in a 3,000 pound vehicle with a price tag under $30,000." It's Lydell Third Cycle engine works "by internally transferring thermal energy (heat) normally lost to the car's radiator, to additional thermal energy for actual engine power output."
MDI/Zero Pollution Motors (France)
The concept of Guy Negre's French-built "air car" is fairly simple: Compressed air drives a two-cylinder internal-combustion engine. Back in 2000, Negre said he's soon have plants building the air cars in South Africa, Mexico and the U.S. Doubters at the time said that compressing the air used too much energy for the plan to be viable. The concept went dormant for a while, but now it's back, headed in the U.S. by Shiva Vencat as Zero Pollution Motors.
The original design is much improved, Vencat says, with a built-in heater that can burn ethanol, vegetable oil or other fuels, increase the volume of air and thus the range. In fact, the company says the air car can travel 848 miles on a single tank of air -- the equivalent of 106 miles per gallon. We have yet to set eyes on an air car prototype, but we'd love to see perform one under actual test conditions.
From the website: "Under 35 miles an hour, the engine runs on compressed air only with zero carbon-dioxide emissions. Above 35 miles an hour, the heater kicks in to heat the air that increases its volume, increasing its range with very low emissions....The volume of the air increases with the rise in temperature achieving over 100 mpg with very low emissions. The chassis of the vehicle is made of a mixed frame of aluminum tubes and cast bonded together using the aircraft technology. The body is made of lightweight fiberglass, epoxy resins and polyurethane."
Millmac Corporation, founded in 2000, specializes in repairing ships and marine engines. Its two principals are graduates of the Merchant Marine Academy who will "use their knowledge of marine propulsion systems to achieve their efficiency goals." The secret is a method by which marine or automobile engines "can burn fuel more efficiently." The car, using off-the-shelf-components, will run on gasoline, ethanol "or a combination of the two."
Funny, the vehicle accompanying their X Prize entry looks just like a Chevy sedan. But maybe it's amphibious.
Nelson Tywa Power Corporation (North Carolina)
These folks are throwing the concept of light weight and aerodynamics right out the window. In fact, they think they can achieve the equivalent of 100 mpg in a full-sized SUV "with almost zero emissions." If this one works, Tom Hanks will probably get to star in the movie version. Rod Nelson (Hanks) is an inventor from a small town in the South. He developed his engine in the machine shop of rural Johnston County Community College, helped by a friendly crew of students. And eureka!
The device works, and the EMC-2 Plus SUV achieves "fuel efficiencies exceeding 60 percent and zero toxic and particulate emissions." It translates to "over 60 miles per gallon for full-sized SUVs, over 100 miles per gallon for the dinky shrunk-down vehicles foisted on us. And we can kiss goodbye to the brown cloud hovering over our cities." The system "is capable of using all available fuels, gasoline, diesel, propane, natural gas, vegetable oil, etc. with little or no costly modifications." Something tells us the story goes dark when "they" (Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem) don't want the invention to see the light of day. But here's wishing Rod Nelson well in his Auto X endeavors.
Physics Lab of Lake Havasu (Arizona)
The Green Giant is an older Chevy Blazer that won't win its weight class, but the Physics Lab team has some impressive ideas. It's a fully electric vehicle that captures waste heat and (like the Chevrolet Volt) uses an onboard generator (in this case diesel) to increase range and achieve the equivalent of 100 mpg. The electric drivetrain charges its batteries "with multiple energy sources," including "PV, steam, hydrogen, weight-exploiting hydraulics and diesel/natural gas."
Team leader Jim Stansbury has a physics background but is a professional anesthesiologist. Chief engineer Anna Haywood comes from Arizona State University. The motto appears to be that "ordinary people can achieve great feats." And, wow, if all those energy sources can work together to get 100 mpg out of a big SUV, they will indeed have achieved great feats.
Red Light Racing (Maryland)
Like the Aptera, this one could use wings. Its five participants are all active members of the military, including the Navy and Marines. And all are graduates of the Naval Test Pilot School currently assigned to Strike Aircraft Test and Evaluation Squadron 23. Their on-the-job training consists of flying EA-68 Prowlers, F/A-18 Legacys and Super Hornets.
But their concept is earthbound: A cutting-edge diesel hybrid based on the two-seat Honda Insight, using Volkswagen and Honda components. They're reportedly testing it all at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Synergy Innovations Electric Mini (London)
Steve Brooks and his English team are starting with a standard BMW-built Mini and turning it into "an electric vehicle with advanced user interface." They say it will be designed "primarily for urban use but with high top speed and good range allowing for extra-urban journeys when required." The hitch here is that there already is an official electric Mini, the Mini-E. Some 500 are being built and being leased to customers in three states for $850 a month. The back seat is lost to a lithium-ion battery pack. The Mini-E gets 150 miles per charge.
Working with a company called PML, Synergy Innovations developed a rather different electric Mini: the QED has 160-horsepower electric motors in all four wheels, producing a stunning 640 horsepower and a top speed of 150 mph. The car's battery pack is enhanced with a bank of ultra-capacitors, and it also uses a small internal-combustion engine to recharge the battery. Fuel economies of 80 mpg are claimed. We're not sure what the range of this screamer is, but it does come with an "eco" mode.
Tata Motors (India)
Tata is a name to be reckoned with in India, and Tata Motors is that country's biggest carmaker (with four million of its vehicles on the road and $8 billion in revenues). The company made quite a splash when it announced its $2,500 Nano model, but that has run into some production (and pricing!) snags.
Nevertheless, an electric version of the Nano will be entered in the X Prize's alternative class; the mainstream entry will be a version of its Indica Vista Hybrid, about which not much is yet known.
TTW Italia (Turin, Italy)
This company, part of Fly Energy Group, has extensive experience with drive-by-wire technology and electric-hybrid powertrains. Its three-wheeled TTW is a plug-in hybrid with a natural gas engine that seats two passengers in line. It travels the first 40 miles on battery power (through electric motors in the front wheel hubs), then the internal-combustion engine kicks in. It's somewhat motorcycle-like, and tilts around corners.
It's fast, too, reaching 100 kilometers an hour in six seconds. Given its many features and ultra-light weight, the TTW Italia is very likely a significant contender for the prize.
Western Washington University (Bellingham, Washington)
Western Washington is one of the greenest schools in the U.S., and its undergraduate Vehicle Research Institute has been building environmentally friendly prototypes since 1972. More than 45 have been constructed, and the school was a regular in the Tour de Sol competitions. There's a lot to expect from this team: Viking 32 is a 200-horsepower parallel hybrid, running zero to 60 in six seconds on bio-methane derived from cow poop.
Under the hood, the 1.7-liter engine is borrowed from the Honda Civic GX, but the carbon fiber body is the school's own. One imagines the Viking 45, the Auto X contender, will be even more fabulous.
Here's an interesting contender, the SGT01, a mid-engined, rear-drive four-seat sedan that you can commute in. Wikispeed has some serious credentials developing what it calls "$17,000 supercars," also known as "ultra low-cost, mass-production road-legal vehicles." The project appears to be shaping up rapidly, with some Honda elements clearly visible in the photographs.
Zap certainly knows how to make a splash. By 2008, it was supposed to be producing the Zap-X, a $60,000 crossover vehicle with 644 horsepower from four in-wheel motors, 350-mile range on a charge, a zero to 60 time of 4.8 seconds and a 10-minute recharge time. Bill Gates would give billions for one of those, and Jay Leno would trade the contents of his legendary garage. But the Zap-X is no longer on the radar, we hear. Instead, Zap is fielding the Alias for the X Prize. It's a three-wheeled, two-passenger all-electric car with lithium-ion batteries, power everything, "euro-racing leather seating" and a price of less than $35,000.
Zap claims the motorcycle-like Alias will do zero to 60 in 7.8 seconds, have a maximum speed of 105 mph and a range of 100-plus miles. It weighs just 1,496 pounds. Zap sure makes great announcements. We're waiting to see the car in the metal.