The once-crowded field at the Auto X Prize is narrowing. (Credit: Auto X Prize)
I have to say that the $10 million Progressive Insurance Auto X Prize is a bit of a soap opera. What a movie it would make. The Alternative Class came down to a photo finish for $2.5 million, with frontrunner Edison2 and its Very Light Car disqualified at the very last minute because of a software glitch.
According to David Brown, Edison2's spokesman, "This is a high-stakes competition. It was potentially a $2.5 million software problem." Ouch! But Edison2 has consolations. The field is now much narrowed, and it's two remaining Very Light Cars are the only contenders left in the Mainstream class. And that's worth $5 million.
The point of the Auto X Prize is to stimulate development of cars with the equivalent of 100 mpg that you or I can buy. When Auto X was announced, those cars were nowhere to be seen, but now the field is crowded: We have the $41,000 Chevrolet Volt "range extender," the $32,000 Nissan Leaf battery car, and many others from Coda, Wheego, Think and Smart. It seems the market took off on its own.
The Edison2 Very Light Car: a sure winner. (Credit: Auto X Prize)
Still, the Auto X fascinates, because the contenders are a quirky lot. The battery electric X-Tracer is now sure to win the Alternative tandem class (an oddity, these are cars with the passenger behind the driver). X-Tracer will win because it's fielding the only two entries. The car is from a Swiss team, and it's essentially an enclosed motorcycle with auxiliary wheels that extend at lower speeds. It has an extra-tough (and expensive) Kevlar body, which may explain the estimated price of $106,000.
Shades of the Tesla Roadster (which it nearly matches in price), the X-Tracer reaches 60 in less than three seconds, and soars to an unrestricted 180 mph. Why not? It's a motorcycle! There's solid Swiss craftsmanship here, though, and the X-Tracer deserved to win.
The X-Tracer: Swiss entry still standing. (Credit: Auto X Prize)
The third class, alternative side by sides, remains crowded with eccentric designs. The TW4XP, from Germany, looks like a computer mouse on wheels. Battery (and human!) power get it up to 80 mph and an estimated 230 mpg. Li-Ion Motors is, as the name implies, a lithium-ion powered car, something of an aerodynamic airplane without wings (like the Aptera 2e and the Edison2). It claims 300 miles per charge. And Zap, a California company that has fielded actual production cars, though often disappointing their customers, is still competitive with the Alias, a three-wheeled battery electric that the company is taking reservations for on its website.
Aptera is also intending production, but scant financing has stalled its efforts to get its radical 2e onto the market. I enjoyed the brief ride I had in a 2e, and wish the company well, but auto manufacturing is (like boat ownership) a hole into which you throw money. It's gratifying to see Aptera get this far.
Edison2 is probably the most likely to influence future car design. Team leader Oliver Kuttner is a very confident fellow, and he thinks his company's ultra-lightweight shapes (even in steel or aluminum, not carbon fiber) can produce mass market cars for a new century. With an automotive partner, he'd like to build millions of them. With a small E85 ethanol engine, he achieved 129 mpg on the track. Impressive.
The big hurdle will be getting consumers to accept the design of cars like these, which were shaped not by the dictates of a demanding public but by the ability to cheat the wind. Coming next to a science fiction movie screen near you, but after that to your garage.
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