The Auto X stand at the recent Specialty Equipment Market (SEMA) show. (Auto X Prize photo)
The field is narrowing, and three lucky ducks are going to walk away with their share of $10 million. The money will be awarded in September by the Progressive Automotive X Prize, whose winners will be the best at building production-ready cars and trucks capable of the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon.
According to Eric Cahill, senior director of the X Prize Foundation, "We're trying to create and stoke awareness about the new technologies, and helping to familiarize people with them, so they'll be comfortable when they're introduced."
Cahill points out that since there are many different types of cars in the competition -- electrics, biodiesels, E85 ethanol, straight diesel and hydrogen, even a steamer -- it's impossible to measure them with the city and highway mpg ratings we're all familiar with. Instead, X Prize and Consumers Union both advocate what they call MPGe, which uses several factors to arrive at a miles-per-gallon equivalent for alternative technologies.
It gets interesting when you add in plug-in hybrid vehicles, which have both electric and gas modes, yielding dramatically different performance characteristics in each. For instance, Porsche just unveiled a 918 Spyder that can travel 15 miles on a charge (experiencing zero emissions) but then lights up a a humongous 500-horsepower V-8 that's not nearly as green.
"You've hit the nail on the head," Cahill said. "Electrification introduces substantial variability in fuel economy. For some of these cars, it makes a big difference if you're traveling 10 miles or 100 miles, and how fast you're going matters, too." For that reason, Cahill said the X Prize is working on a definition of fuel economy for plug-in hybrids that includes two phases, charge-sustaining (when the gas engine is running) and charge-depleting (when it's off).
"People are used to two mpg figures -- city and highway," Cahill said. "But they don't apply to some of the new vehicles, and part of our job in fostering wider adoption is in helping consumers who are not technically savvy get used to new metrics."
The Auto X Prize is partnering with the Morey Corporation, which is charged with creating a level playing field for judging cars' eco-performance. Each car will be outfitted with Morey's wireless telematics equipment that can measure fuel economy and other metrics, then transmit the data via cellular technology to central servers. According to Emad Isaac, Morey's chief technology officer, some data on each car will be publicly available on Auto X's webpage. "We're going to great pains to make sure there is equivalence between vehicles," Isaac said, "even monitoring cabin temperature."
In February of last year, when registration closed, there were 111 teams fielding 136 vehicles (some have more than one). Today, with some entrants disqualified and others dropping out, there are 39 teams and 49 contenders. And they're coming from the four corners of the planet, from Hong Kong to Helsinki, from Bellingham (Washington) to Blue Ash (Ohio). There are 13 international teams, including India's Tata (the only mainstream carmaker entered). Aptera, which builds a futuristic EV right out of The Jetsons, is also an entrant. Aptera's Marques McCammon said the company, which has suffered production delays, will use Auto X as a validation of its technology. Here's a quick look at one of the more exotic cars, on an auto show stand in Vancouver:
From Finland comes the Electric Race About (E-RA), which is a 2+2 lithium-ion battery electric built from the ground up by a team at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences (pictured below). From China there's APET-X, the only Asian entry, a unique nickel-metal-hydride battery electric. Britain's Delta Motorsports is entering a sleek EV coupe, the E-4. Edison2's pod on wheels, from Charolottesville, Virgina, is internal combustion. And Cornell University, a formidable contender, has an eco-diesel.
Next month, the competition moves to Michigan, for the shakedown stage at the Michigan International Speedway. Cars will go through safety inspections -- electrics will need to have a high-voltage kill switch, for instance. They'll go through braking tests, lane-changing evaluations, recharge time checks and acceleration trials. The public will meet the challengers at a public ceremony in Lansing April 29.
In June, they'll be back to demonstrate that the cars can achieve at least two thirds of the 100 MPGe figure, while also demonstrating real-world performance and low emissions. The finals are in July, followed by a final validation stage in August at the EPA Labs in Ann Arbor and the Argonne National Labs in Chicago.
To win, cars will have to be production-capable (in quantities of 10,000 a year), plus meet safety and emissions criteria. Prize winners will be in two divisions, competition (in the race for the money) and demonstration (no purse), and in both mainstream (standard five-passenger economy cars) and alternative (innovative designs). Half of the $10 million goes to the fastest mainstream class car, and the remaining $5 million will be split between two alternative class winners. It's too late to enter, so you'll just have to follow the results vicariously.
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