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?