Monday, April 02, 2007

An X Prize For Fuel Economy

Y'all remember the X Prize, right? $10 million went to the team that built the first private spaceship to make it to space. The contest prompted big advances in the baby private-space-flight industry, and continued X Prize-type challenges keep spurring the new industry forward. Now there are not only private companies contracting with NASA to take payloads into space, but there are many companies working on various commercial space projects, from space hotels to space elevators. This financial incentive thing gets people involved--and gets results. $10 million can certainly give little guys with big ideas some incentive.

So, what about applying that principle for more Earthly goals? Nick Bunkley, at The New York Times is reporting that the X Prize Foundation is set to offer even more than $10 million to whoever can develop the first "commercially viable car that can travel 100 miles on a gallon of gasoline." They're not looking for pie-in-the-sky here. They want to prompt the development of vehicles that would work and be affordable in the real world.

...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.

100 miles to the gallon of gas, and an affordable car to boot? That would make it possible for folks here in Portland to drive all the way to Disneyland (a very important destination) without stopping to fuel up. Wow. Sounds almost too good to be true, and if it weren't for the competition and financial incentive, I doubt this would go very far. Bunkley explains that the problem isn't making a car that can get 100 mpg, but in making that car at a price people can actually afford to pay. The industry is not currently geared for the rapid changes and big risks necessary to shift from the 20 mpg the average car gets today to the 100 mph that they're aiming to achieve with the impetus of the competition. That $10 million shot in the arm, though, could make all the difference. The X Prize approach has really produced results in reaching for the stars. It'll be exciting to see where this new prize can drive the automobile industry.

Hat tip: Instapundit