X Prize revs up quest for super-efficient car

The X Prize Foundation, which spurred innovation by offering $10 million US for the first privately-built spacecraft, plans to offer millions for the first practical car that increases mileage five-fold.

The X Prize Foundation, which spurred innovation by offering $10 million US for the first privately built spacecraft, plans to offer millionsfor the first practical car that increases mileage five-fold.

The California-based non-profit organization, whose mission is to encourage radical scientific and technological innovations that benefit humanity, released draft guidelines for the Automotive X Prize on Monday.

The contest will require vehicles to meet tough emission requirements and get 100 miles per U.S. gallon (about 42 kilometres a litre). The current average fuel economy of U.S. vehicles is about 20 miles per gallon (nine km/l).

The competition is intended "to inspire a new generation of viable, super-efficient vehicles that help break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change," the foundation said on its website.

"We invite the world's best and brightest minds to look at this independent, high-profile competition as a way to make a difference for generations to come," Mark Goodstein, the executive director of the Automotive X Prize, said in a news release.

The foundation said it envisions a multi-year competition with a multimillion-dollar cash purse. The New York Times reported the prize would be more than $10 million US, with races in 2009 to test the mileage claims.

The guidelines specify that the car must be appealing to buyers and easy to mass produce — warning that concept cars or "science projects" won't qualify.

The vehicles will compete in real-world driving tests, in two categories — mainstream (four or more passengers and four wheels) and alternative (two or more passengers and no requirement on the number of wheels).

The foundation said it created the Automotive X Prize because its members felt consumers needed a greener option, because current oil consumption is not sustainable, because 65 per cent of U.S. consumption is in the transportation sector and because vehicle emissions contribute to climate change.

It said the automotive industry was stalled, with many factors combining to block the technological breakthroughs needed.

As well, the foundation said the industry had become more fuel-efficient — but offset the gains by making larger or more powerful cars.

"We are at a pivotal moment in time when promising new technologies, growing consumer demand, and global politics make it ripe for a radical breakthrough in the cars we drive," Peter Diamandis, the founder and chairman of the foundation, said in the news release.

The Times reported Monday that more than 1,000 potential contestants had contacted the foundation, even before the request for comments on the draft guidelines was published.

The Automotive X Prize's target of 42 kilometres a litre is about three times the rebate level for efficient cars that Ottawa set in the March federal budget.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government offered rebates for the purchase of new cars that use fewer than 6.5 litres of gasoline for every 100 kilometres driven (just over 15 kilometres a litre) and minivans or SUVs that consume fewer than 8.3 litres for 100 kilometres (12 kilometres a litre).

X Prize Foundation is best-known for the Ansari X Prize (named after sponsors Amir and Anousheh Ansari), a 2004 competition to, using entirely private money, build and fly a reusable space vehicle.

The winner, SpaceShipOne, had to be able to carry three people 100 kilometres away from earth and back twice in a two-week period. About two dozen teams from seven countries competed for the $10 million US prize.