/ 21 March 2008

X Prize dangles $10-million for fuel-efficient car

More than 60 teams from nine countries have lined up to chase a $10-million prize for making a green supercar that smashes records for fuel efficiency, organisers of the competition said on Thursday.

The initial list of teams signed on for the Automotive X Prize competition range from California-based electric car start-up Tesla Motors to Cornell University in New York.

”We’re not talking about concept cars,” said Peter Diamandis, chief executive of the X Prize Foundation, at the event to mark the launch of the competition at the New York auto show. ”We’re talking about real cars that can be brought to market.”

The goal is to create a commercially viable car that gets at least 160km to the gallon. In late 2009, qualifiers will crisscross the United States in a stage race designed to test the vehicles on speed and the distance they can travel. The race will also test the vehicles in traffic and a range of terrain and weather conditions in determining a winner.

A few early contenders rolled quietly into the New York auto show on Thursday, some on three wheels. Others, like the Hybrid Attack from a high school team out of Pennsylvania, sported a more traditional speedster silhouette.

Tesla, which is owned by PayPal creator Elon Musk, has built an electric sports car that can travel 392km on a charge and reach 96km/h in four seconds. The sold-out $98 000 Tesla Roadster went into production this week.

”We desperately need cars that are clean and efficient and safe and attractive to everyday buyers,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the launch.

None of the major automakers has signed up to join the X Prize competition although many, including Toyota and General Motors, have electric or partly electric vehicles in development that are expected to come to market in the next several years.

Malcolm Bricklin, the auto entrepreneur who brought the super-cheap Yugo hatchback to the United States in the 1980s, said he would enter the competition with a luxury car priced under $40 000 and backed by a dealership network.

Bricklin said his attention is solely on building up the electric and electric hybrid auto industry after recent failed efforts to import the first Chinese-made car to the United States. ”I’m not interested in a normal car anymore,” he said.

Bricklin said he signed on Thursday for a $50-million private placement with Ferris Baker Watts that his company, Visionary Vehicles, will use to develop and market its X Prize contender.

Organisers of the Automotive X Prize on Thursday also announced they have signed up a sponsor for the competition to build a production-ready vehicle that exceeds 160km per gallon or gets energy-equivalent fuel economy.

Insurer Progressive will sponsor the competition, which begins accepting formal applications in two months.

The X Prize Foundation is the same organisation that promoted space flight by awarding $10-million for the first privately funded group to fly into space.

Aerospace designer Burt Rutan won that Ansari X Prize for space flight in 2004 in a venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. ‒ Reuters