Christian Science Monitor: The next X-Prize: How about a 250 mpg car?
- View SourceThe graphic accompanying this story (presumably
in the print version as well) includes a graphic
sidebar, "Auto industry going green" that
describes as "now in view" EDrive conversions
($37K, 100-200MPG+ electricity) as well as Honda
Civic hybrid ($21K,50) VW Golf ($19K, 40), and
"over the horizon" Honda fuel cell ($1M, 62),
Honda FIT hybrid ($16K, 60-80), Peugeot 307,
unknown cost, 69). It also includes links to
greencarcongress.com, hybridcars.com, calcars.org,
Sci/Tech > Science & Space
from the May 08, 2006 edition
The next X-Prize: How about a 250 m.p.g. car?
By Mark Clayton | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The challenge: Build the world's most
fuel-efficient production car - one that gets
maybe 250 miles per gallon and causes little or
no pollution. The payoff: prize money from the
group that awarded $10 million for the world's
first private spaceflight two years ago.
When the X-Prize Foundation unveils its new
high-mileage car contest later this year, it will
join a small but growing number of competitive
prizes for energy development. Instead of
watching President Bush and Congress wrangle for
months to just get Detroit to boost fuel
efficiency by a few miles per gallon, why not
offer fat cash prizes to the private sector for
breakthrough technologies? Proponents say it's a
cheaper and faster way to unhook America from its oil dependency.
"Ford's Model T got 25 miles per gallon, and
today a Ford Explorer gets 18 miles per gallon,"
says Peter Diamandis, X-Prize Foundation
chairman. "We believe the time is ripe for a
fundamental change in what we drive - and we
believe an X-Prize in this area can drive a substantial change."
Several of the prize ideas are coming from the federal government. For example:
The Department of Energy (DOE) is authorized to
award up to $10 million in incentives for
next-generation technology that could turn wood and other fiber into ethanol.
The DOE was also authorized by last fall's
energy legislation to offer a $5 million "Freedom
Prize" for tangible methods to cut US dependence on imported oil.
One drawback is that no money has yet been
appropriated for either prize. But interest
appears to be catching on. In hearings April 27,
Congress weighed a proposal for a new "H-Prize,"
which would dangle $100 million in awards to
speed up development of hydrogen-powered cars.
"There's been a rediscovery of prize competitions
in the private sector, and now it looks like
government is starting to follow," says Thomas
Kalil, senior fellow at the Center for American
Progress, a Washington think tank.
Such contests aren't new. In 1795, Nicholas
Appert won 12,000 francs and Napoleon's gratitude
for a canning system that fed his army unspoiled
food. Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic
solo to win a $25,000 prize in 1927.
And the results have sometimes been impressive.
Within a year after Lindbergh's feat, the number
of aircraft in the US had quadrupled and the
number of pilots tripled, says Mr. Diamandis.
Modest government interest has been growing of
late. US agencies procure new technology mostly
through contracts with universities and
companies. Taxpayers typically pay, whether or
not companies or researchers actually succeed.
But government interest in prizes began to grow
after 1996, when the $10 million Ansari X-Prize
was announced for a privately financed craft to fly into space.
Interest in the space prize spurred Mr. Kalil,
then deputy assistant to President Clinton for
technology and economic policy, to organize a
National Academy of Engineering investigation
into inducement prizes. The study found key
advantages, including contests' ability to
attract a broader spectrum of ideas and
participants, cut costs and bureaucratic
barriers, shift risk for achieving results to
contestants, leverage financial resources, and
inspire the public. In its final report, the
academy recommended that "Congress encourage
federal agencies to experiment more extensively
with inducement prize contests."
On Friday, the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration announced a new $2.5 million
contest - to be administered by the X-Prize
Foundation - called the "Lunar Lander Challenge."
Winners of the contest must develop a lander that
can take off, hover, travel 100 meters, land -
and then take off again and return to the starting point.
Back on Earth, former Rep. Robert Shamansky wants
to propose a national contest for a high-mileage car.
During his first tour in the US Congress in 1982,
when the nation was still reeling from the second
oil shock, the Ohio Democrat sponsored a bill to
award $150 million to the developer of a car that
got at least 80 miles per gallon. His bill
foundered after he lost his reelection bid. Now,
running in Ohio's 12th District, he hopes to revive the plan.
The idea may have been ahead of its time, Mr.
Shamansky says in a phone interview. But "we have
to be less dependent on oil - period. The contest
idea was good then - and it's good now."
Pulling off such contests also requires a bit of
P.T. Barnum showmanship to motivate the right people.
"There are countless failures you don't hear
about," says Diamandis of the X-Prize Foundation.
"It's all about creating the dynamic to attract
the maverick thinker.... It's not about the gizmo
- it's about the human being."
That means inspiring the likes of Felix Kramer, a
California Internet entrepreneur who hopes to
partner with a big auto company to create a
high-mileage car. That's what his CalCars team
did in September 2004, when it developed the
prototype of a Toyota Prius with an electric
cord, which users could plug in to charge a
beefed-up battery. The extra reliance on electric
power gives the "Prius-plus" better than 80 miles per gallon.
"Whatever this competition does, it has to
somehow get Detroit involved," Mr. Kramer says.
"A big golden carrot should help do that."
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Felix Kramer fkramer@...
Founder California Cars Initiative
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