Automotive X Prize: What Went Wrong?

The Automotive X Prize was announced in 2007 as a competition for road cars capable of achieving more than 100 mpg, or its equivalent using other fuels. The original draft guidelines stated that track stages would have no speed limits. The winner would be the car that completed all the stages in the least time, provided that it managed an average of at least 100 mpg. The overall objective was to encourage energy-efficient road cars that remained both realistic in size and good to drive. The competition finished in September this year, and the results were disappointing. So what went wrong?

“Although we anticipated developing a hybrid or electric vehicle – hence our name, Edison2 – our studies on efficiency led us away from the significant added weight of batteries needed for an electric or hybrid drive to a one-cylinder, 250cc internal combustion engine fueled by E85.”


The Edison2 team spotted that the organizers hadn’t specified a minimum car weight. Yet throughout motor sport, a minimum weight clause is regarded as essential. This fact and its several reasons were brought to the attention of the X Prize organizers, with the suggestion that the ‘alternative’ class could remain unlimited to allow the demonstration of innovative weight-reduction technologies. The organizers eventually decided to place no weight limit on the mainstream cars, although they did insist on a minimum driver weight of 200 lbs(!), with ballast to be added if necessary.

The character of the competition significantly changed when the final guidelines stated, “Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE will also impose maximum cornering speeds. For reasons of safety and consumer relevance, there will be no unlimited-speed events or top-speed tests.”

The original intent was that the cars should be “desirable.” However, as a result of the various omissions and changes to the rules, most of the cars are desirable in one respect only: low fuel consumption. Put a family of four and their bags in an Edison2, and it will be sluggish and cramped. The cabin is narrow for a reason, low air drag. Yet the car is very wide, unacceptably so in most of the world. The wide tracks allow high cornering speeds, preserving momentum and saving fuel without the need for regenerative braking. The Edison2 team did an excellent job of exploring the full envelope allowed by the final guidelines. However, the competition’s original objectives were eroded by the major changes to the rules, all of which combined to produce a disappointing result.

The organizers’ key mistake was failing to set a minimum-weight limit for the mainstream cars. Edison2 claims its cars weigh less than 800 lb. Yet the aluminum-bodied Mitsubishi ‘i’, one of the lightest production four-seaters, weighs more than twice as much. The requirement to maintain 55 mph on a 4% grade illustrates how undemanding most of the performance limits were. Only the driver needed to be in the car for the performance tests, despite the nominal four seats. Imagine the impact on the performance of a car with a kerb weight of less than 800 pounds when occupied by four adults and their bags.

What a shame. The Automotive X Prize could have made a difference. Does anyone still think it will?

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  • MrEnergyCzar

    I always thought the Aptera would win… I’m getting the Volt next year and using my surplus solar power from my net-zero solar home to run the car.. I made some videos to help people powerdown their homes if getting a plug in vehicle etc… I attached one of them here.


  • Rom

    The mission statement on the X-Prize Foundation’s page states “a world-class prize institute whose mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.” Really? With what? This makes 2 X prize competitions that end in a useless vehicle. Instead of doing another competition, I suggest the X-Prize Foundation just donate the money to a useful charity.

  • Rom

    The mission statement on the X-Prize Foundation web site states “a world-class prize institute whose mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity”. Six years later, we’ve had 2 competitions that produced competition-only vehicles that were used only once for the cost of 20 million dollar winnings and well over 100 million in development.

    For the next competition, I suggest the X-Prize foundation have useful charities compete against each other and have 10 of them win a million dollars in the end. We would have far greater benefit to humanity than the museum piece and the 800 lb. motorcycle.

  • JBob

    100 miles on a gallon of Gatoraid… its called a bicycle!

  • Airstream motorhomes

    The Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE is the essence of each competition is to design, build and race super-efficient vehicles that achieve 100 MPGe (2.35 liter/100 kilometer) efficiency, produce less than 200 grams/mile well-to-wheel CO2 equivalent emissions, and could be manufactured for the mass marketThe mainstream class has a prize of $5 million. The alternate class has two separate prizes of $2.5 million, one for side-by-side seating and one for tandem seating!!!!!!!

  • JamesDavis

    It sounds like fossil fuel extracting companies stuffed a lot of money into some people’s pockets. When that happens, no good ever comes from it. The X Prize should correct the rules and hold the contest again and restrict it to non-fossil fuel vehicles.

  • John K.

    Thanks for the explanation. It explains a lot. I’m surprised w/Consumer Reports involvement, the competition was not more “reality based.” Except for Aptera, which may go on sale later this year and may survive as a niche vehicle (it is WAY too late to market not to be upstaged by the Volt and the LEAF), it seems like this X-Prize competition was a diversion and waste of time, money and effort. Sad.

  • Dom

    Sounds like you guys are just sore that the vehicle runs on E85 instead of being a hybrid or electric vehicle. Electric drive isn’t the only answer…

  • Bert C

    There were more winners..
    “Two other car makers will split $2.5 million each: Mooresville, N.C.-based Li-Ion Motors Corp., which made the Wave2, a two-seat electric car that gets 187 miles on a charge, and X-Tracer Team of Winterthur, Switzerland, whose motorcycle-like electric mini-car, the E-Tracer 7009, gets 205 miles on a charge. Both of those companies are taking orders for their cars. X-Tracer Team says the electric E-Tracer will be available to U.S. consumers next year.”

    see full article here:

  • Anonymous

    Weight limit does not really matter – none of those care are really practical and I would assume most wouldn’t withstand any crash tests … It’s a great thing to promote ideas and look at things from a different angle, it’s sort of research, and research has often not a direct practical value but might produce some ideas for real products.

    I would like to see in addition to these ‘research’ x-price a more practical oriented one with categories like:
    – small commuter car
    – small family car
    – big family car
    – SUV/Pickup like car
    This would put a bit more emphasis on practical values and security.

    Cars used to be much more efficient – that was before all the ‘safety additions’ were required.

    What we need is a competition to make the best fuel efficient, practical and safe car. If it fails in crash tests, it fails in the competition. Depending on category, if it fails on usable room, it fails in that category ….

  • DrMindbender

    Let’s stop bashing everyone invloved (promoters for funky rules, entrants for pushing the rules to win the “competition” not the “spirit” of the event) and not lose the real lesson here: our current cutting edge technology is not capable of delivering a practical vehicle that can transport a family of 4, meet DOT safety regulations, have enough acceleration capability to drive on our current roadways, and make 100mpg or equivalent…Therefore, no matter how impractical any of the entries were, it should be glaringly apparent that we need many many more of these competitions, and strange and impractical ideas, just to begin to compete with ourselves in this race! In other words, just because this race is way ahead of it’s time, don’t knock the promoters or entrants for sucking at it…just face the facts: NO ONE is even ready to enter this magnificent race!

  • John K.

    Dom wrote, “Sounds like you guys are just sore that the vehicle runs on E85 instead of being a hybrid or electric vehicle. Electric drive isn’t the only answer…”

    No, I’m not sore at all. I don’t have an interest in the outcome. I was only interested in what would win. It was supposed to be a viable, mass produced daily driver. A 4-seat car powered by a single cylinder engine w/a total displacement of 250 cc is NOT a viable daily driver. Load that thing up w/two adults and two children or groceries, and it wouldn’t make it up a hill!

    The issue for me is not E85. The issue for me is that after all the time, money, and effort spent on the Progressive X-Prize challenge, the winner is worse than impractical for a daily driver, it is not even viable. What a waste.

  • jim1961

    A lot of people are disappointed the automotive X-Prize was won by a car with an internal combustion engine. I understand why people like the idea of electric cars. I’m glad so many people want to save the planet by reducing greenhouse gases. It will come as a surprise to many that the internal combustion winner of the X-prize emits much less CO2 per mile than every electric car in X-prize competition. The Edison2 Very Light Car puts out HALF of the CO2 emissions of it’s closest electric car competitor. WHY ARE SO MANY PEOPLE UPSET ABOUT REDUCING GREENHOUSE GASES???????

  • MKenyon

    Having been on involved with some of the teams I have to say this competition has been more about the X-Prize foundation making money than fostering true innovation.

    You would not believe the hoops the teams had to jump through just to stay in the game. Many of these had to do more with promoting AXP’s agenda to make $$$$. Of the ten-of-millions the AXP received, none of the teams got a dime to help them out. And a lot of these guys spent their life savings to compete.

    What the AXP wanted as a final product was a PRODUCTION READY vehicle capable of these numbers. Which, for 5M is a pretty tall order. How much does GM spend designing a light-switch, never mind a vehicle from scratch!!!!!

    Let’s hope someone looks at this and comes up with a similar competition without the BS

  • Dave – Phoenix

    In general, I am very displeased with the automotive X-Prize.

    I was hopeful that this prize would lead to the mass production of a 100 mpg passenger vehicle that the average American could buy. That clearly did not happen.

    What we ended up with was a bunch of glorified science projects.

  • Bert C

    Glorified science projects? (One of the winning companies)

  • Bert C

    Glorified science project? hmmm.. (one of the companies that won)

  • Bob Rodgers

    What a sham…. the true winner of this prize is set to leave ( again )for Las Vagas this week .
    A 3400lb 87 Mustang at CRUSING SPEEDS over 70 mpg with a proven 109mpg and a high of 137mpg. A real car in real world road conditions.
    The New York to L.A. run was shortend to a CLOSED CIRCLE, one gallon fuel , one day farce at Michigan International Race. Track……NOT THE REAL WORLD…….. 10 MILLION TAX PAYERS funds, for what.

  • Bob Rodgers

    What a sham…. the true winner of this prize is set to leave ( again )for Las Vagas this week .
    A 3400lb 87 Mustang at CRUSING SPEEDS over 70 mpg with a proven 109mpg and a high of 137mpg. A real car in real world road conditions.
    The New York to L.A. run was shortend to a CLOSED CIRCLE, one gallon fuel , one day farce at Michigan International Race. Track……NOT THE REAL WORLD…….. 10 MILLION TAX PAYERS funds, for what.

  • John Shore

    Chris Ellis provided many useful comments during the development of the competition Guidelines. We debated at some length his argument that a minimum weight limit should be imposed, but decided against it for reasons discussed here:

  • Don Kiddick

    I don’t know why some of you folks think the Edison2 is impractical as a daily driver: Most commutes are undertaken with just the driver aboard. Something that can do 0-60 in less than 15 seconds, top 100 mph, and achieve 100mpg with a 200lb driver on board seems pretty reasonable to me. And no range-anxiety! 😉

    And light weight doesn’t have to make a vehicle unsafe: look at the impacts that F1 drivers walk away from. It’s just a question of making a cage or shell that doesn’t deform, and then surrounding the occupants with sufficient airbags that they decelerate progressively (even if it’s over a short distance) and don’t make actual contact with the inside of the rigid shell.

    And as for not making it up a hill with 4 occupants – the Edison2’s engine can produce 40BHP. Have you folks ever heard of the Citroen 2CV? That had 29BHP, yet I remember making a 200 mile journey in one to relatives for Christmas: 4 adults, luggage, all the presents, all the food for the Christmas dinner, even pots and pans! The car would still do over 60mph and return at least 40mpg (english). That was with terrible aerodynamics (Cd 0.51 IIRC) and a curb weight about half as much again as the Edison2.

    Oh, and that was over 30 years ago. Progress?…

  • brian

    well, the folks who were backing the edison2 had 4 cars they entered that alone should tell you something.wake up folks,mass-productiion was never part of the deal

  • Handy.Ed

    You *do* know that Aptera imploded after the “auto” guys took over, right?

    (it is too bad as I had high hopes.)