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Automotive X Prize entrants announced

August 2, 2007

After almost 2 years of speculation and deliberation, the Automotive X-Prize (AXP) announced its list of registered teams, which ranges from upstart unknowns based out of garages, all the way up to established companies.

I was a big fan of the original X-Prize, but this new incarnation has some conceptual flaws.

The original competition had a truly spectacular goal – getting into outer space relatively cheaply using private money. But more importantly – and here’s the crucial distinction – there was no immediate financial incentive for mission success beyond the prize money -which wound up being less than the cost of development. It’s taking Sir Richard Branson and Scaled Composites several years to develop a profitable business based on SC’s proof of principle technology. However, the prize money created a market demand (albeit an artificial one), and spurred technological development which a traditional investment would have balked at.

With the AXP, the technological goal is an affordable, practical 100 mpg car, and the business plan to manufacture, market, and sell it. This specificity goes well beyond proof of concept, and unlike SpaceShipOne, such a winning entry would be its own financial incentive. Additionally, the free market has a clear demand and need for such a product: just take a look at recent US auto sales.

So is the AXP irrelevant?

Not entirely.

For smaller companies that are just starting out, or are in desperate financial trouble (e.g. Zap!), $10 million could seriously help an innovative company launch or stay afloat. But it’s difficult to develop a complete, realistic business plan that takes into account manufacturing infrastructure. Established business entities with investors, existing products, and a decent cash flow are much more likely to manage this task successfully.

However, for larger companies the prize money is going to be a drop in the bucket compared to both the initial investment and the eventual profits. If you peruse the entrants, entrants like Phoenix and Tesla have established business plans and product developments that are well on their way. They already have the same goals as the AXP, so participating is almost like an afterthought. And while $10 million could build a lot of Phoenix trucks or Tesla Roadsters, they know that relying on winning the prize money isn’t a sustainable business strategy, nor a meaningful market pressure.

This sort of selective pressure on entrants is a major flaw of the XPrize concept, but the idea is novel and could be put to good use by instead focusing on individual components. In other words, prizes could be awarded for the first working engine to achieve a certain power/weight ratio or the first affordable composite chassis material. Prizes could also be broken down by specific vehicle classes and/or applications, and the AXP could assist with both prize money and marketing licenses to OEMs if the inventor doesn’t have the resources or desire to build it themselves. This is somewhat similar to the way that DARPA funding operates.

This scenario could be a likely outcome if/when the AXP is won, and the organizers ask “what next?” In the meantime, we have to just sit back and see what happens. If you’re on one of the teams – get to work!

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2 comments

  1. A quick review of the teams list reveals some interesting things.

    1) A lot of the teams are focusing on further refining the internal combustion engine using novel designs and tuning. I’m skeptical of these ideas principally because over a century of ICE research and refinement has transpired, and we’re still using the classic, reliable piston engine design. I won’t go as far (or as ignorant) as Ralph Nader by decribing the ICE as “technological stagnation” – we are still getting 25-30 mpg because of increased vehicle weight (safety features, etc) as well as more engine-choking emissions technology. However, the likelihood of a few garage inventors succeeding where generations of engineers have failed is rather slim.

    Additionally, a more efficient ICE still relies on fossil fuels.

    2) Several companies have backgrounds in making lightweight buggy cars that get good milage because of this low mass. Scaling up the designs is going to effectively rob those firms of their “secret sauce”.

    3) One company – Velozzi – caught my eye because they are translating their success with microturbines into making plug-in series hybrids, similar to the Volt concept. Interestingly, GM itself once used a turbine genset in an EV1 variant. I think this new genset technology – if it works – is a step in the right direction compared to the other teams. However, it’s still a stop gap measures before the introduction of fully electric vehicles.


  2. It’s conceptually quite flawed. Some of the rules appear to have been workovers of the Tour de Sol rules, which became increasingly unwieldy & confusing over the years. There was mention, perhaps earlier in the Automotive X-Prize considerations, of how many cupholders a vehicle had as a possible criterion. Automotive X-Prize authorities consider it “gaming” to have batteries than can be quick charged. The assumption taken is quick charging would yield unacceptable battery cycle life, so there is no recognition of advances in battery & charging technology. Beyond that, if a car got 500 miles on a charge, 100 charges would seem to me to be quite acceptable for prototype vehicles. In addition, the method of determining the eventual winner and distribution of money was difficult for me to fathom Even the rationale for only targeting 100mpg was poorly thought out. Instead of measuring improvement over existing high mpg cars such as the Prius or Insight, it was improvement over 20mpg or so cars that was championed.

    I’d rather have had the prize time-line be open, with the prize offered to the first car meeting some high mpg criteria to travel some minimum average speed for some distance on a test track – say 100 mpg at 60 mph over 30,000 miles, i.e. 500 hours of driving!

    May other inconsitencies and lack of thought. Like many other similar events and it seems the main consequence will be is press and publicity, not genuine useful engineering that’d benefit car buyers with limited means. Even so, I look forward to something intriguing to surface from the competition.
    -brian



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