100 mpg cars Race to win $10M Auto X Prize -- 15 Years After RMI crossed the finish line

Jim Harris

This is the first of two blogs posted in frustration – the next one will be called Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister.

The Automotive X Prize of $10 million for the team that designs, manufactures and markets a green super car. The vehicle must get at least 100 miles to the gallon (mpg) – or its energy equivalent fuel efficiency. For the Canadian equivalent that’s 161km on 3.8 litres of fuel – or 2.4 litres per 100 kms. The competition was officially launched March 20 at the New York International Auto Show.

The winning high-efficiency vehicles will be judged on price, size, capability, safety and performance. In late 2009, the competition’s finalists will crisscross the United States in a stage race that will test the cars on numerous criteria and determine the winners.

Progressive Insurance, the third largest US auto insurance group, is sponsoring the competition and funding the $10 million prize.

There are two categories – mainstream vehicles which will be required to carry four or more passengers, have four or more wheels, and have a 200 mile range; and alternative vehicles for two plus passengers, have no constraints on the number of wheels, and a 100 mile range. More than 60 teams have signed up so far.

Super-efficient cars will be a major step forward in the fight against global warming. When you think about it the Hummer gets 6 miles to the gallon and these cars will get more than 100 – so it’s a 16 fold improvement.

But all this begs the question – it’s great to have everyone excited and yes it’s progress but we have three Detroit auto companies who have spent $20 billion advertising SUVs and pick up trucks with horrific fuel efficiency over the last two decades – working to convince North America that real men drive only energy pigs.

The publicity around super efficient cars is great. Getting hundreds if not thousands of engineers involved in these endeavours is great. So why my frustration?

Well, the Rocky Mountain Institute began working on a 100 mpg hypercar 17 years ago – in 1991. (see http://www.autobloggreen.com/2007/01/05/a-short-history-of-the-rmi-hyper... for history).

Rocky Mountain Institute's Hypercar has got more than 100 mpg since 1993. Note how the car's contour looks like the Prius. Japanese engineers know good design when they see it -- just show it to them and they'll run with it. By contrast Detroit executives have to be legislated into increasing fuel efficiency -- and have worked at every turn to retard retard mandatory standards.

In 1993, the concept was publicly released at the International Symposium on Automotive Technology and Automation with supporting details.

After receiving the Nissan Prize, RMI organized a dedicated conference on Hypercars in 1994. Also that year, RMI founded the Hypercar Center, an additional nonprofit arm dedicated to supporting the rapid commercialization of ultra-light hybrid vehicles.

By mid-1997 the Hypercar Center was engaged in discussions and collaboration with 30 automakers.

In 1999 Hypercar, Inc. was spun off as a for-profit start-up company to commercialize the Hypercar concept and to start getting them made. And by 2000, all key technologies had been demonstrated. The company now has been rebranded as FiberForge see http://www.fiberforge.com/index.html

So the X Prize is working to re-invent the wheel – to create a performance standard that has existed with practical, proven technology since 1993. So that's why I am frustrated. Why can't I buy one now?

The X Prize while raising awareness is working prove out a concept that has been proven since 1993. We need to accelerate the rate of change.