At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week, there are hundreds of new cars on display that achieve high fuel efficiency and reduce pollution. Also on hand are representatives of the private X Prize Foundation, which is sponsoring a competition to create a vehicle that is both super efficient and appealing to consumers. VOA's Greg Flakus has more from Detroit.
The competition aims at promoting the development of vehicles that use far less gasoline than those currently on the road. Part of the push comes from environmental concerns and part comes from the fact that petroleum is selling for close to $100 a barrel.
Automotive X Prize Executive Director Donald Foley says backers of the competition want to move the industry away from vehicles that rely on petroleum-based fuels.
"We know that oil is a finite resource and even though the reserves today are considerable, we know that they are dwindling. By having fuel efficient vehicles using less and less of that oil, we know we are going to reduce our dependence on that one form of energy," he said.
The X Prize Foundation is best known for the 2004 competition to design a human-piloted space craft that would leave the earth's atmosphere and return twice within a two-week period. The $10 million prize went to aircraft designer Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who gave financial backing to the project.
The Automotive X Prize is focused on developing a vehicle that can get 100 miles per gallon, or 43 kilometers per liter. The vehicles chosen for the final competition will compete in a cross country race in 2009 and 2010 that will test speed, urban driving and overall performance. Competition rules require that a vehicle must comfortably carry four adult passengers, meet U.S. auto safety standards and be ready for a production run of at least 10,000 cars.
Donald Foley says the winning car must have real market appeal. "Our competition is not about concept cars. We want real, affordable, practical vehicles that people want to buy," he said.
Already more than 50 teams from seven nations have signed up to compete. Ulrik Poulsen from Denmark is one of the people with his eyes on the prize. His Connecticut-based company has developed a device using wheel-mounted disks that can turn any vehicle into a hybrid that uses both gasoline and electricity for power.
"They are attached externally on to the rear wheels of an existing vehicle. They can actually be installed in three to four hours, with the vehicle standing on the ground. It does not even have to be on a lift," he said.
Poulsen's team plans to select a light-weight passenger vehicle already on the market and equip it with the hybrid system for the competition. Win or lose, he hopes the competition will draw attention to his product.
That is also a motivation for another competitor, automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin, who has already developed a luxury car that meets the X Prize criteria and which could be available for purchase by the time the competition gets underway next year.
"One of the things that the X Prize is looking for is cars that can get 100 miles to a gallon and can be manufactured. With a little bit of luck, when the X Prize is ready, this car will be coming off the assembly line. So it will go right from the assembly line to the race," he said.
Beyond the monetary award that comes with the X Prize and the profits he may gain from sales of his vehicle, Bricklin says the venture represents something more important. "My vision is a world in which we do not end up buying oil from people who do not like us, for starters, and at the same time have a cleaner world for my kids and my grandkids," he said.
If such a vision comes true, the streets of the future may be filled with vehicles that produce little pollution and transport people and cargo safely and inexpensively.