Friday, September 24, 2010
X Prize Winners Look Weird … With Good Reason
X Prize Winners Look Weird … With Good Reason
By Jason Fagone
September 16, 2010
Categories: Alt Fuel, Cool Cars, EVs and Hybrids
WASHINGTON — Let’s start with the obvious. The three winning Progressive Automotive X Prize vehicles announced today certainly look a tad strange.
One is a banana-yellow enclosed motorcycle from Switzerland. Another is a neon-green coupe that resembles a well-rubbed bar of Irish Spring. And the big $5 million winner, the inspired creation of a startup company from Lynchburg, Virginia. called Edison2, looks like a bird skull dipped in liquid chrome, a piece of high-flown origami or a particularly angular foil-wrapped chipotle burrito — take your pick.
So chuckle if you want — but as the founder of Edison2, Oliver Kuttner, likes to say, “Facts are stubborn things.” And here are the facts…
Kuttner’s car, the aptly named Very Light Car, gets 102.5 mpg equivalent (MPGe). It weighs a scant 830 pounds. If you drive it at 70 mph and take your foot off the throttle, it coasts for a mile-and-a-half before it reaches 10 mph. The E-Tracer enclosed motorcycle, made by the Swiss company Peraves, gets 187.6 MPGe. And the neon-green Wave II by North Carolina’s Li-ion Motors? It clocks in at 187 MPGe.
All three are real cars that can accommodate actual (i.e., fat-assed) Americans. They all survived a series of brutal X Prize torture tests throughout the spring and summer: zero-to-60 and 60-to-zero tests, double-lane-change avoidance maneuvers, durability and emissions tests, intensive safety inspections, multiple fuel efficiency cycles and, finally, “validation” at a U.S. government lab.
And today, after an awards ceremony at the Washington Historical Society, the three teams drove the cars through city traffic to the Department of Energy, past gawkers and sidewalk picture-snappers, so Secretary of Energy Steven Chu could kick the tires.
The cars look weird because they had to look weird to get the numbers. In the end, science won.
Today was a day of many paeans to science: At the ceremony, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, “I would say that if you want to use four words to address the domestic agenda, it is science, science, science, science.”
All three winners are low-weight, aerodynamically efficient platforms. Platform is really the key word here: As much as they’re cars, they’re arguments about cars, polemics against the same-old, same-old. Each one is a subtle manifesto about the way things could, and perhaps should, be.
“What we are proposing, in detail, is a complete departure from the automobile,” Kuttner said in his acceptance speech.
Of course, it remains to be seen if consumers are ready for daring cars like this. And certainly a lot of the X Prize competitors who didn’t go quite as far did very worthy work.
Also showing up for the ceremony today, for instance, was a busload of kids and teachers from the West Philadelphia Hybrid X Team, an inner-city high-school program that managed to quadruple the fuel efficiency of a stock Ford Focus sedan.
The West Philly kids came up with an ingenious hybrid drive: a battery-powered electric motor bolted to a Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine. Four West Philly kids and an advisor spent the afternoon at the White House, meeting President Obama.
All of the major automakers are scrambling to meet tougher CAFE standards that will soon start ratcheting up. They’re going to need some fuel-sipping ringers in the lineup if they want to keep hawking the gas-guzzlers.
History is littered with the corpses of men foolish enough to start their own car companies. But maybe the X Prize winners don’t have to start car companies. Maybe they can license bits and pieces of their technology: for instance, Edison2’s innovative, miniaturized, in-wheel suspension system, or Li-ion’s battery management system.
Or maybe they can become a sort of skunkworks for a big established automaker. In July, at the invitation of General Motors, Kuttner and his Edison2 team spent the day at the GM wind tunnel outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, running the Very Light Car through its paces.
“We are a long way” from any kind of a formal relationship with GM, Kuttner said at an afternoon briefing on Capitol Hill. But still: the GM wind tunnel. It happened. I was there. GM’s aero guy was like a kid in a candy store.
And that whole afternoon, as the tunnel whipped a freight train’s worth of air past the fuselage of the Very Light Car, which registered a startlingly low coefficient of drag of 0.16, I didn’t hear a word about how the car looked.