An international competition with a $10m (£5m) prize is drawing innovators from around the world who believe they can create a viable ultra-high-mileage, low-emissions vehicle to combat the dual perils of soaring oil prices and global warming.
The Automotive X Prize, or AXP, has already attracted about 50 entries – including two from Britain – although the competition, along with the names of its wealthy backers, will not be formally announced until March.
The teams will then have a year to prepare for the first-round heats, in which they will have to prove their vehicles can exceed 75mpg. The following year, the competitors will battle it out in a final, 10-stage showdown in cities across the United States, with spectators able to watch on a live web link. In the finals, the cars will have to achieve at least 100mpg consistently – less than a third of the 32mpg average fuel consumption of all cars on UK roads.
The competition is being launched against the backdrop of $100-a-barrel crude oil and, for motorists in Britain, the prospect of fuel soon costing 110p a litre, or £5 per gallon.
The company competing for the main prize must provide an affordable, safe, four-seat family car with the potential to appeal to ordinary buyers and a business plan to produce 10,000 a year. The team that meets the criteria and clocks up the best time across all 10 races will win the prize.
“We don’t want science projects, laboratory experiments or exclusive high-end products that most of us can’t buy,” says Don Foley, executive director of the AXP. “We don’t want vehicles that just look nice on the covers of magazines. We want super-efficient cars that people will want to go out and buy, right now.”
While average fuel economy for British cars is 31mpg for petrol cars and 39mpg for diesel (with the overall average of 32mpg), the average fuel economy of cars in the US is just 20.2mpg. Diamandis is keen to point out that even the Model T Ford managed 25mpg. “If we do this right, we’re going to draw a large line in the sand and say all cars we drove before this date are relegated to the history museums,” he claims.
Among the competitors will be Dragonfly Technology of Northampton, founded by Dr John Davis, an aerodynamics specialist who has worked with Formula One teams from Lotus to Williams. He plans to produce a super-efficient petrol-engined car using technology pioneered in F1.
“We’re looking at a practical petrol car, not a bubble car or anything stupid,” Davis says. “Our entry uses the principles of hybrid cars, such as regenerative braking, but instead of using electronics to store energy in a battery, which is really not very efficient, this system is entirely mechanical and works by storing energy in the flywheel.”
The car will have a predicted fuel economy in excess of 100mpg, with the possibility of going beyond that, and emissions of less than 120g/km. The competition is not restricted to cars with internal combustion engines. The only stipulation is that the fuel must be available to the car-buying public, which rules out hydrogen.