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The People Who Spurred the Development of a Private Space Plane Have Set Their Sights on a More Difficult Task: A High-Efficiency Car that Even Homer Simpson Would Love.

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Associate Editor

Mechanical Engineering 129(06), 36-39 (Jun 01, 2007) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2007-JUN-3

This article discusses features of a high-efficiency car. The group setting up the contest, the X Prize Foundation, used a cash prize to lure a private company to launch its own space vehicle. Automakers have been better at producing high-efficiency concepts, such as the Chevy Volt than actual high-mileage cars. After the success of the Ansari X Prize, the directors of the X Prize Foundation looked for other fields in need of a push. In an era of rising gasoline prices and stagnant fuel efficiency marks, the idea of setting up a prize for a highly fuel-efficient vehicle was a natural. The contest tests vehicles on several factors, not just the single metric of fuel economy. The eventual winner of the Automotive X Prize will be much different. For starters, the car must meet federal safety standards and will be judged on physical attributes such as exterior styling, interior comfort, and the quality of the workmanship. According to the managers of the competition, the most important objective of the Automotive X Prize is to encourage not only the mainstream industry but also people on the periphery to really layout on the table some strong ideas.

FOR all the Cassandra-like warnings that the American birthright to drive big cars long distances . is leaving the world high (as in temperature) and dry (as in oil wells) it's easy to ignore this in the summer of 2007. The driving season has begun, commutes continue to get longer, and gasoline, while much more expensive than it was in the 1990s, is still cheaper than bottled water. The easy motoring utopia, to borrow the phrase coined by writer James Howard Kunstler, may soon grind to a halt, but for now it seems to be puttering steadily along.

The dichotomy between what we believe and what we. do is evident in the new car lot. When asked, Americans say they'd like a car that was more fuel efficient and less likely to lead to the extinction of polar bears. But when given the choice, they more often than not walk past the Honda Civic and buy the Ford Expedition or the Chrysler 300.

If worldwide oil supplies are dwindling-and they are, though the rate and importance are debatable-and if greenhouse gas emissions are changing the global climate in destructive ways-and the overwhelming consensus is it is-then the disconnect between intention and action has to end. To some, the answer is in punitive measures, such as high gasoline taxes or tradable carbon emission rights, which will coerce motorists to use less fuel. It's likely that some measures of that sort will be put into effect after the next presidential election.

But the other way to change behavior is to wield carrots rather than sticks. If automakers could offer attractive, comfortable, even sexy cars that got 60 or 100 miles . per gallon, thinking goes, it's probable that consumers would opt for them in fairly large numbers. Very few people are interested in burning gas as an activity in itself; most just want to go places, and in style.

There's no way to test that theory now, since no one is selling such a car. But that's the thinking behind a new initiative working to have not one but several high-efficiency cars ready for public inspection before the end of 2009. To make this happen, the group behind the initiative will be wielding its own carrot, a cash prize well in excess of $10 million to the car maker that can produce a 100-mpg car that wins a coast-to-coast race.

"By saying you have to get 100 miles per gallon but you also have to go fast, we're pushing the designers in a direction we think the public wants," said John Shore, a member of the team developing the contest.

If the concept sounds vaguely familiar, it should. The group setting up the contest, the X Prize Foundation, used a cash prize to lure a private company to launch its own space vehicle.

Automobiles may seem to be such a natural part of the American environment that it's odd to think their development needed any sort of boost. But prizes were once a common way to promote technological development, and the automobile was part of that. Races that now are thought of as a competition between drivers, such as the Indianapolis 500 or the 24-hour Le Mans endurance race, began as much as technological proving grounds as spectacles. Even today, the Le Mans race offers technologically oriented awards, such as one for best fuel efficiency.

For other competitions, technology was the whole point. Early in the 20th century, the Dewar Trophy was handed out annually by the Royal Automotive Club of Britain to a company that could solve a particularly vexing technological challenge. In 1908, for instance, Cadillac won the prize for a rather impressive demonstration of the interchangeability of its parts: Three cars were disassembled, their parts scrambled and then reassembled from the pile of random components. The rebuilt cars were then driven 500 miles.

Another, more recent technology contest was established by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA offered $2 million to the developers of a vehicle that could race 132 miles across a desert course with no human guidance. The first race, held in 2004, was a complete disaster-no vehicle traveled farther than eight miles before succumbing to technical breakdowns. The second running, however, was more successful, with not one but five teams able to complete the course, including a group from Stanford University, which picked up the prize.

It isn't only automobiles that have been the target for prize-driven development. Charles A. Lindbergh's 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris was part of a prize competition. One prize that has yet to be claimed is the Sikorsky Prize, a $20,000 reward to be given to the builders of the first human-powered helicopter.

In 1996, a group frustrated by the pace of progress in human space flight launched a contest to spur development of a private alternative to NASA's Space Shuttle. The contest, known as the Ansari X Prize, raised money to provide a $10 million purse to be awarded to the first team to build a vehicle capable of lift.ing two passengers to an altitude of 60 miles twice in two weeks.

The idea that a prize could spur groups to develop fully functioning rockets was laughed off at first. The prize money, for instance, would scarcely cover the costs incurred by the winning team, and there was no guarantee that success in the contest had any relation to an ongoing business plan. Just how many tourists were willing to spend a large sum to fly to the edge of the atmosphere in a cramped, experimental craft?

And yet, by the time the prize was won, in 2004, by Scaled Composites, a company led by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, more than 25 groups had actively competed in the Ansari X Prize contest. To date, Rutan's group has had no further launches, but several design and technology innovations that grew out of the development process for SpaceShip One and other contenders will no doubt find their way into the next generation of space vehicles, no matter who builds them.

After the success of the Ansari X Prize, the directors of the X Prize Foundation looked for other fields in need of a push. In an era of rising gasoline prices and stagnant fuel efficiency marks, the idea of setting up a prize for a highly fuel-efficient vehicle was a natural. But just how efficient should they shoot for? And how to ensure that the winning vehicle is something that people want to buy, not some strange-looking box that looks more like an appliance or art project than a car?

The team hired by the X Prize foundation to set up the contest is made up of individuals who, like Shore, come from high-tech start-ups, not the automobile industry. "It enables us to treat this as a start-up challenge," Shore said. "And we come to this without any baggage." After immersing themselves in the technology and politics· of the industry, however, Shore said that the group had a handle on issues needed to establish a sensible program.

Automakers have been better at producing high-efficiency concepts, such as the Chevy Volt (above) than actual high-mileage cars.

Grahic Jump LocationAutomakers have been better at producing high-efficiency concepts, such as the Chevy Volt (above) than actual high-mileage cars.

Where's the driver? This autonomously guided vechile entered in DARPA's Grand Challenge doesn't need one to race across the California desert.

Grahic Jump LocationWhere's the driver? This autonomously guided vechile entered in DARPA's Grand Challenge doesn't need one to race across the California desert.

Several preliminary iterations led to the draft competition guidelines, which were published in April. The contest tests vehicles on a number of different factors, not just the single metric of fuel economy. "It's more like a decathlon than a sprint or a marathon," said Glenn Mercer, former senior auto practice expert with McKinsey & Company, a Cleveland-based consultant group.

To win the Automotive X Prize, a team must build a car that achieves the equivalent of at least 100 miles per gallon of gasoline, emit less than 200 grams of carbon dioxide per mile (taking into account the full well-to-wheels fuel cycle) and meet EPA standards for other emissions.

The idea is to create a playing field where gasolinefueled vehicles compete fairly with diesels, electric vehicles, or cars powered with renewable fuels like ethanol. The efficiency of electrics, for instance, will be measured from the plug to the wheels, so losses in the battery will be assessed as consumption. And while battery-electrics produce no emissions on the road, their overall greenhouse gas contribution will be calculated via models that take into account the makeup of the nation's power plants.

The organizers, again trying to ground the contest in the here and now, will limit the fueling options to readily available fuels: gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and electricity, at the very least. The list can grow to include such fuels as biodiesel and hydrogen, Shore said, but only if a team's business plan makes a compelling argument that an additional fuel could be purchased easily by consumers.

If the contest were only about getting spectacular fuel mileage, there'd be little point. In April, a group of engineers from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo raced a vehicle that obtained over 1,900 miles per gallon. But that car, the Cal Poly Super Mileage, won't exactly solve any oil crises. It was just big enough to wrap itself around the driver, with no spare room for a bucket of chicken, let alone a week's groceries. And to say the car raced is a bit of an overstatement; the average speed was just 15 miles per hour.

The eventual winner of the Automotive X Prize will be much different. For starters, the car must meet federal safety standards, and will be judged on physical attributes such as exterior styling, interior comfort, and the quality of the workmanship. It will have to feel like a real car, not a soapbox derby racer.

And the competitors won't be able to have a seat-ofthe- pants operation, either. The teams will submit business plans providing a guide for bringing their vehicle to market. The benchmark to meet is selling 10,000 highefficiency vehicles a year.

Instead of projected sales, Shore said, his team had first looked at price as a benchmark. "But when we talked to smaller car companies, they said insisting on a $25,000 price tag would put them out of business," Shore said.

Indeed, the success of the Toyota Prius suggests that a manufacturer could sell a high-efficiency vehicle at a premium to cover the cost of implementing new technology. And other technologies, such as air bags and antilock braking systems, found their way to the mass market as options on luxury vehicles.

Meeting all those benchmarks, though an accomplishment beyond anything the auto industry has been able to produce to date, won't be enough to secure the Automotive X Prize; it's just a qualification. Before the award is finally given, the qualifiers will go head to head in a series of races.

"We wanted a way to measure performance," Shore said. By racing the qualifYing vehicles, the cars will be able to demonstrate their real-world capability in a way that the public will be able to grasp intuitively.

The exact course and schedule of the races has yet to be determined, but the draft competition guidelines call for a number of stages over varying conditions, potentially crossing the country from coast to coast. The organizers envision both time trials over public roads and stages held on test tracks or speedways. While the competitors would be required to obey all local regulations on the road stages, they will be allowed to run flat out on the tracks.

Mercer believes that, based on what he's seen, a car could be built now that could meet all the Automotive X Prize criteria and complete a cross-country race. "There are companies that could come pretty darn close to winning this today," Mercer said. Not that the race won't spur innovation- aerodynamics, drivetrains, and energy management systems could all be overhauled-but it's unlikely that, come 2009, the prize will go unclaimed.

Is the contest an implicit indictment of the industrycapable but unwilling to build a high-efficiency car? "While we are not shy about saying the industry is stuck, we're not conspiracy theorists, and we're not interested in finding fault," Shore said. "We think that we offer a great opportunity for the big companies to shine." General Motors, for instance, might want to use the contest as a platform to launch its Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid vehicle the company said it wants to build in the next few years. Ford and Chrysler might similarly use the contest to unveil high-efficiency cars now on the drawing board.

But for a smaller company or a start-up, competing in the Automotive X Prize might well be a way to neutralize the enormous advantage in consumer awareness and trust that the large American and Japanese auto companies have built up over the past decades. The tension between the plucky start-ups and the established automakers with generations of engineering experience could turn the technology competition into a real human drama.

"The most important objective of the Automotive X Prize is to encourage not only the mainstream industry but people on the periphery to really layout on the table some strong ideas," said Geoff Wardle, an automobile designer and director of mobility research at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. "Without something like Automotive X Prize, the overall progress will be much slower."

Mercer said that there's a rather large gap between what consumers say they want in an automobile-great efficiency, low emissions, low impact on the environmentand what they actually purchase. Much like the fictional automaker in an old Simpsol1s episode that staked its future on designing a car to the tastes of Homer Simpson, car companies that have tried to appeal to the environmentally conscious buyer have until now been harshly rewarded.

The success of the Toy ota Prius may be a turning point in the marketing of gas-s ipping cars, Mercer said. Instead of a small, austere vehicle, the Prius has the look and feel of a more luxurious car. People in the market for a new car who wouldn't be caughtin an econo-box, no matter how much they wanted to help the environment, felt comfortable buying a Prius.

If the Automotive X Prize is to be judged as a success 10 years from now, it will have to do for ultra-high-efficiency cars what the Prius did for the hybrid: make it a choice, not a sacrifice, to buy one.

"We think the culture is changing, not just because of energy sec urity but also a greater awareness of global warming," Shore said. "People are more disposed to buy a more efficient car, but they'd rather not give up all the other stuff."

The Tension Between The Start-Ups And The Established Automakers Could Turn The Technology Competition Into A Human Drama.

Copyright © 2007 by ASME
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