The race is on to develop a commercially viable car that can travel 100 miles on a gallon of petrol.
The same group that awarded $10 million (Rs43 crore) to a team that built the first private spacecraft to leave the Earth's atmosphere is expected to announce the rules for its automotive competition on Monday. The group, the X Prize Foundation, says the contest, expected to carry a prize of more than $10 million, could have a significant effect on the automobile industry by speeding up efforts to use alternative fuels and reduce consumption.
The average fuel economy of vehicles sold in the US has remained nearly stagnant—around 20 miles a gallon—for decades (one gallon=4.55 litres; one mile=1.609 km).
"The industry is stuck, and we think a prize is perfect to disrupt that dynamic," said Mark Goodstein, executive director of the Automotive X Prize. "Failure is frowned upon in this industry, and that doesn't make for big advances. It makes for incrementalism."
Even before it began publicizing a draft of the rules for the competition, the foundation had fielded enquiries from more than 1,000 potential contestants and institutions willing to participate. Many major auto makers have also expressed interest in monitoring the contest. This includes some that are considering competing themselves.
Ideally, Goodstein said some of the top teams would see their designs purchased and used in some form byauto makers.
A General Motors spokeswoman, Susan Garavaglia, said the company had not determined its level of participation in the contest but would pay close attention to it.
"GM is always looking for new innovative technology to improve fuel economy and performance and reduce emissions of our vehicles," Garavaglia said.
"The key is whether or not it can be provided to the customer in a way that's affordable to them and in a way that we can make it in a high-volume application."
Indeed, the organizers want to ensure that vehicles entered in the contest, which will compete in races in 2009 to determine the winner, are commercially viable. Entries must be production-ready, unlike many of the fantastical concept cars that are presented at auto shows. Each team must prepare a business plan for building at least 10,000 of the vehicles at a cost comparable to that of cars available now.
In fact, several cars have been built that could travel more than 100 miles on a gallon, but they were expensive and used only for demonstration. "Building a one-off that can go 100 miles per gallon, I think any of the auto makers could do that," said James A. Croce, chief executive of NextEnergy, a non-profit organization in Detroit that promotes alternative energy. "It's mass-producing them that's the problem."
But if the Automotive X Prize works as intended, that problem could be resolved much faster than the industry might be able to on its own.
"This is not a question of curing cancer," Goodstein said. "The technologies to build superefficient vehicles exist. It's just a matter of convincing manufacturers to build them."