WIRED MAGAZINE: Wired Issue 16.01
Cars 2.0 : Future Transport
1 Gallon of Gas, 100 Miles — $10 Million: The Race to Build the Supergreen Car
By Eric Hagerman
Standing on the roof of a boxy old Buick, Kevin Smith has a great view of the vast boneyard at Kertow Auto Salvage, outside Taylorville, Illinois. He's here looking for the key to America's super-fuel-efficient future. "Found it," he says to me, spying a cluster of mid- to late-'90s Dodge Neons in the middle distance. He stomps down off the trunk and, followed by three buddies, converges on 11 promising carcasses. They pick through gaping engine compartments and weedy wheel wells, searching for an intact manual transmission — its rudimentary design should be easy to fit to Smith's custom-fabricated hybrid engine. "The geometry has already been engineered," he says. "There's no need to reinvent the wheel."
Junker number 10082 has exactly what Smith needs. He makes his way to the office, where a red-bearded man stands behind a beige linoleum counter: "I am with Illuminati Motor Works," declares Smith, whose day job is issuing permits for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. "We have been accepted as a competitor in an international competition to build a 100-mile-per-gallon car." With that, he haggles halfheartedly, plunks down $250 for the whole car, and agrees to haul back what the team doesn't use.
It might seem strange to look for the vehicle of the future amid a field of old wrecks, but whoever wins the Automotive X Prize will have to take this kind of creative leap. Known as the AXP, the competition will award at least $10 million to the team that builds a 100-mpg machine and then wins a race against other green vehicles. Some 43 teams are already working on their rides, even though the competition won't be formally announced until early 2008. A qualifying race in 2009 will serve as a proof-of-concept shakedown, and then, in 2010, the remaining squads will go after the big money. Smith is convinced that the plug-in hybrid electric car he's building has a shot.
Cars are a new arena for the X Prize Foundation, whose mission is to spur innovation by doling out cash awards to teams that solve thorny technical and engineering problems. The foundation's first purse was the $10 million Ansari X Prize for spaceflight; Burt Rutan and Paul Allen won it in 2004 when their rocket plane made it to the edge of Earth's atmosphere twice in two weeks. Then there's the Google Lunar X Prize, which will go to the first private venture to send image-transmitting rovers to the moon, and the Archon X Prize: $10 million to the first outfit that can sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days for no more than $10,000 apiece (see "The X Prize Ecosystem"). Now the "revolution through competition" model is being applied to energy and the environment with the Automotive X Prize.
The aim of the AXP is to prime the market to demand cars that use less oil and produce fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. "There's a very large industrial complex married to an old solution," says X Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis. "If we do this right, we're going to draw a line in the sand and say all the cars we drove before this date are relegated to the history museums." Who killed the electric car? Who cares. Dangle a $10million carrot and watch as engineers deliver both crackpot schemes and genius innovations, any one of which could upend the existing automotive industry.
The rules, which will be finalized later this year, have three broad components: efficiency (cars must get at least 100 miles per gallon); emissions (cars must produce less than 200 grams of greenhouse gases per mile); and economic viability (mass production of the cars has to be feasible, and the company has to have a plan to make 10,000 a year). It's this last point — that a winning vehicle has to be safe, comfortable, and ready to be mass-manufactured at a reasonable cost — that will separate the fantasy-mobiles from those that could actually be put into production and sold for a profit. "We do not want toys," says S. M. Shahed, a Honeywell corporate fellow who, as a past president of the International Society of Automotive Engineers, serves as an adviser to the AXP. In other words, a one-off, carbon-fiber-ensconced motorized recumbent bicycle isn't going to cut it.
So how is a team like Illuminati, working from Smith's garage in the cornfields south of Springfield, going to compete in an arena traditionally dominated by multibillion-dollar giants? For one thing, none of the giants have announced an intent to participate. "We fully endorse the X Prize," says Bob Lutz, vice chair of General Motors, "but we just cannot divert ourselves from the business at hand." That business is the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric car that Lutz hopes to have on the streets by 2010. "We're really not that interested in technology as a science-fair project," he says. But GM and the other major automakers are sure to be watching carefully for interesting technologies. If a team designs, say, a clever hybrid engine that bolts right onto the transmission of a Dodge Neon, it could sell the design to Chrysler and emerge a big winner regardless of whether it does well in the race.
Smith, for his part, is playing to win. A chemical engineer by training, he has built five vehicles for other fuel-efficiency competitions and even took first place for most innovative design in a 1996 contest sponsored by the Department of Energy. Teammate Kevin Hecht, a colleague at the EPA, is an electrical engineer who worked on General Motors' EV1 project in the early 1990s. (GM laid him off when it scrapped the program.) A third member, Thomas Pasko, owns an automotive repair shop in Springfield. Together, they have the skills necessary to be serious contenders.
Outside the Kertow office, with the Neon strapped to a trailer behind Pasko's truck, the Illuminati crew piles into their caravan for the drive home. A junkyard worker looks on, fists jammed into his coverall pockets, and cracks, "I bet it doesn't use any gas going back to Springfield."
Americans drive more than 5 billion miles a day, which accounts for about 40 percent of US oil consumption and 20 percent of the country's greenhouse-gas emissions. US fuel economy averages out to 20.2 mpg, 9 percent less than it was 20 years ago. (The Model T Ford, Diamandis likes to point out, got 25 miles per gallon.) This backslide is due mainly to the heavier, less-efficient SUVs, pickups, and vans that now make up half the market. There's been plenty of innovation in the internal combustion engine in the last few decades, but it's been applied to giving these bulky vehicles better acceleration, not better gas mileage.
The manufacturers say they'd produce fuel-efficient vehicles if people would buy them; consumers say they'd buy these cars if they existed. The principal mission of the AXP is to break this stalemate.
It's not unprecedented for a juicy prize to help goose a fledgling (or moribund) industry. In 1919, hotel magnate Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Charles Lindbergh claimed the reward in 1927. The contest sparked innovation in the nascent airline industry, but more important was the interest it aroused in ordinary citizens. Millions of Americans saw Lindbergh in person during his extended victory lap around the country, which took him to 92 cities in 48 states. People wanted to experience the aeronautic marvels for themselves, and the aviation industry took off. From 1926, during the buildup to Lindbergh's flight, to 1929, the number of passengers on US airlines increased thirtyfold. (Regulatory legislation, which upped safety by licensing pilots, also fueled the increase.)
Technology has advanced a little bit since Lindbergh's day. The final AXP event is a 1,000-plus-mile Tour de Francestyle stage race scheduled for 2010. Each vehicle will be fitted with a telemetry black box that streams performance and efficiency data (including fuel flow, amp-hours, and GPS coordinates). So, in addition to being able to follow the teams' progress on a Google Earthstyle interface overlaid with live video, Web users will be able to see, for instance, how much carbon a particular vehicle is spewing on a particular grade, how its range and average fuel efficiency changes in different conditions, fuel costs during various driving situations, and how much upstream energy is being used. The idea is to teach fans, in graphic detail, how driving patterns affect the amount of fuel they use.
The race itself will stretch across the US and vary from flat-out speed tests on closed tracks (get ready, Nascar fans) to urban time trials in which competitors must obey traffic laws. The vehicle that finishes with the lowest cumulative time while averaging better than 100 mpg wins. To qualify for the main event, teams will not only have to earn 75 miles per gallon in a preliminary race. They'll also have to submit CAD drawings and simulated crash-test data, undergo a dynamometer test to verify the vehicles' efficiency, and present viable business plans that show they're ready for mass production.
So who's going to win — and how? Teams are trying any number of solutions, from streamlined versions of existing technologies to completely novel contraptions. "I've found a way to double the efficiency of the internal combustion engine," claims Martin Lydell, a former hospital exec who recently left his job to work on his invention full-time. He is currently testing his 13th prototype. A German expat in Wisconsin named Ingo Valentin has spent the past 23 years developing hydraulic wheel motors; an inventor named Martin Dudziak assembled a team to create what he calls an external combustion engine; and a Luxembourg-based company called MDI is entering with a motor that runs on compressed air.
In the spirit of encouraging as many different technologies as possible, the contest is open to drivetrains powered by electricity, air, hydrogen, methane, gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, and ethanol — or any other substance clever competitors can use to make their machines move. (Converting the efficiency of other fuels to a gasoline equivalent is a straightforward matter of measuring how many BTUs a vehicle burns per mile.) Regardless of what the rules allow, most teams so far plan to fuel their designs with electricity — either as a pure battery-powered vehicle or a plug-in hybrid.
But don't 100-plus-mpg EVs already exist? Hot-rodded Priuses are currently claiming 125 mpg, and Tesla Motors' battery-powered Roadster gets 245 miles on a charge. Couldn't the Roadster, which is production-ready and goes from 0 to 60 in less than four seconds, dust everyone?
Not so fast. In addition to getting the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon, vehicles have to contribute less than 200 grams of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere for every mile they drive. This would seem to be a layup for EVs, which have a reputation for emitting only a fine mist of good karma. But electric vehicles aren't as clean as their absent tailpipes might suggest. Because electricity in the US is largely generated from fossil fuels, running a vehicle from the national power grid is far from carbon neutral. So AXP organizers decided that teams would have to account for upstream carbon emissions as well as those from the vehicle itself. Using Argonne National Laboratory data that quantifies the carbon emitted while producing and consuming various fuels, the organizers built a handy spreadsheet that teams can use to figure out whether they meet the 200-gram-per-mile standard. All an entrant has to do is pick the column that corresponds to their vehicle's type of fuel and key in the number of miles it will travel on one unit of that fuel (gallon, kilowatt, et cetera). Then, at the bottom of the document, one of two answers pops up: yes or no: You pass or you don't.
The upshot of considering so-called wells-to-wheels pollution is that a pure EV needs to achieve 133 mpg to pass the AXP emissions test. Even when designers take this into account, optimistic projections can fall prey to reality. For example, while the Roadster passes the spreadsheet test if you use the efficiency figures from the car's white paper, nobody has run the numbers based on actual road tests — until I call Tesla and prompt engineer Andrew Simpson to give it a shot. "I'm plugging in our new numbers right now," he tells me. "And... we don't qualify."
The Roadster won't qualify for the X Prize for another reason: The company has no intention to build it in the required numbers. But Tesla does plan to enter its WhiteStar, a four-door sports sedan with a sticker price of $50,000 — about half of what the Roadster costs. Simpson says it's early enough in the new car's development to make adjustments, but he's still not convinced it'll pass. "It's a bigger car than the Roadster," he says, "so I would expect that the efficiency metric would be slightly worse."
And worse it is. Decreasing weight, naturally, is critical to increasing any vehicle's fuel economy. More than a few teams are focused on slimming down their vehicles in pursuit of the efficiency metric that has Simpson so concerned. "In a way, the power source is incidental," says Nick Carpenter of UK design firm Delta Motorsport, an AXP competitor that has created hydrogen fuel-cell commuter cars used in London as well as race cars for the Grand Prix Masters circuit. Delta's strategy, born from racing experience, is to trim weight, maximize aerodynamics, and minimize rolling resistance. The company is using off-the-shelf parts from other firms, he says, "to support what we believe is the most important element — the car itself." Paired with an all-electric power source, the British racer's entry should easily meet both the efficiency and emissions standards.
Back in Illinois, Illuminati has its own secret weapon in the war on weight: a completely new kind of composite that Smith has been developing for two years. It will make the car's body light, strong, and cheap to produce. But beyond those details, Smith isn't making a peep. His five-man squad doesn't include a patent lawyer, and this is, after all, a multimillion-dollar competition.
Beneath its vaulted beam ceiling, Aptera Motors' 15,000-square-foot facility in Carlsbad, California, couldn't be more different from Illuminati HQ. There's an industrial lathe, a TIG welder, a milling machine, a CNC-cut steel assembly jig, and two prototypes of the company's vehicle. Both are 90 percent production ready. By contrast, the Illuminati garage has a chalk outline on the floor that represents the future car's dimensions. A pair of repossessed seats and a dingy foam block map out the cockpit arrangement. And, of course, there's the wrecked Dodge Neon in the yard. To be fair, Aptera has a two-year head start. And, while Illuminati's budget cap is the cumulative limit of the team members' credit cards (around $10,000) plus whatever additional funding they manage to raise, Aptera has undisclosed millions in venture capital.
Founded in 2006 by Steve Fambro and funded in part by storied incubation station Idealab, Aptera plans to introduce its vehicle — a three-wheeled electric two-seater with a 120-mile range and room in back for a surfboard — by year's end. Price tag: $26,000 to $29,000. Its most striking feature is an aerodynamic shape. "I don't want to say it was an epiphany, because anyone who's looked into this knows that at highway speeds, 60percent of the energy goes to push air out of the way," Fambro says. "Why wouldn't we engineer the car to minimize that?"
The answer is that ever since GMsbrought us the tail fin, automotive design has been about emotion — form, not function. Aptera's Typ-1 reverses that paradigm, allowing aerodynamic efficiency to guide aesthetics. Still, the company had to appeal to those form-loving car buyers. Fambro hired designer Jason Hill, who did the original work on the Smart Fortwo and the body styling on the Porsche Carrera GT. Then, Fambro says, "I chained him to a desk" with Aptera's aerodynamicist, Miles Wheeler.
Thanks to its wind-dodging shape, the Typ-1 needs only a tiny 50-kilowatt electric motor to reach highway speeds, so it's highly efficient. Fambro originally predicted the equivalent of 330 miles per gasoline gallon.
But to actually produce the Typ-1, Fambro needed an inexpensive method for producing a lightweight, high-strength body that could be molded into the crazy shape he envisioned. He teamed with wakeboarding boatbuilder Chris Anthony, who had developed a streamlined process to manufacture composite body panels on the cheap. Anthony says the process delivers "aerospace quality at Wal-Mart prices." The result of that partnership, the Typ-1, has a sleek clamshell body that can be cranked out of $100,000 molds and snapped and bonded together by three people.
Although it is legally classified as a motorcycle, it's designed to withstand a 45-mile-per-hour offset frontal crash. The front end has a 45-inch crumple zone, and the roof and doors exceed US safety specs. It weighs 1,500 pounds and goes 0 to 60 in about 10 seconds.
Beneath the energy-absorbing shell lies a web of clever electrical engineering. Instead of clustering the circuit boards in one place, Aptera distributed them near individual systems. As a result, the wiring harnesses consist of no more than four wires each, which saves weight and cuts down on labor.
Fambro will describe the battery system only as a mix-and-match package of several chemistries, lithium-ion included. The electric motor drives a belt that powers the single rear wheel, and the wide-set front wheels steer.
But how does the thing drive? For that, I head out with Aptera to the Arizona Proving Grounds in Yucca, Arizona. While a benchtop generator charges the car's batteries, Fambro's young engineers sit on the pavement with laptops, tweaking the diagnostic software for the test laps.
Because of the high door, I have to slide butt-first into the roomy and, it must be said, nifty cockpit. Anthony steers us, helmets on, out onto the 5-mile oval, and the hundreds of yarn telltales taped to the body stiffen in the wind, but only a few flutter — proof that the computational fluid-dynamics models worked. Our instructions are to take one lap at 50 to 55 mph and head back to the pit, but as we come to the exit Anthony stomps on the accelerator and, with the whine of the drive belt filling the uninsulated composite cabin, we blow by Fambro in his Ford Five Hundred. "I'm being passed by an Aptera!" he shouts over the walkie-talkie.
Several days later Fambro emails me to report the data they collected: According to the AXP spreadsheet, the Aptera has more than double the efficiency it needs to qualify: It gets 340mpg and spews only 78 grams of greenhouse gases. Soon we'll know whether it, or any of the AXP competitors, has the juice to shift the market — or at least get you to reconsider what you drive to work.
Eric Hagerman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer living in New Jersey. His first book, Spark, is being published in January.