The $10 million Automotive X-Prize was billed as a "Revolution Through Competition," which backers said would promote real-world-capable 100 miles per gallon vehicles that are "safe, affordable and desirable." The reality is it's a complete farce.
For those who know the car business, the Automotive X-Prize seemed a well-intentioned snipe hunt. There's a reason Tucker went under and Tesla Motors needed Daimler and Toyota to bail it out — building cars, especially technologically advanced cars, isn't a million dollar enterprise. It's a billion dollar one.
Reporting on it twice did not shape my opinion in the way organizers hoped, but my previous editors weren't interested in my opinion.
Like the proverbial courtiers to the naked emperor, almost no one wanted to recognize the possibility that a likely post X-Prize outcome would be nothing. Looking at the field of X-Prize finalists and five million dollar-winners today, the likelihood that these science fair toys would be tomorrow's safe, affordable and desirable production vehicles is about equal to Rep. Anthony Weiner becoming the 2012 Democratic presidential nominee.
Finally, somebody connected to the event inadvertently owned up to the reality that the X-Prize booty isn't doing all the organizers claimed it would do. Ironically, the epiphany came at one of the world's biggest sustainable transportation events, the 2011 Michelin Challenge Bibendum in Berlin.
I caught up there with Roger Riedener of Pevaves AG. The Swiss company fielded their E-Tracer electric cabin motorcycle in the X-Prize and came away with the $2.5 million prize for winning the Alternative Tandem Class thanks to their 205.3 mpg-equivalent performance.
When asked how the prize money impacted his company, Riedener smiled, laughed slightly and said, "It didn't change anything."
However, Riedener said, "The X-Prize for us was only a catalyst for people to talk to us that never would have before." Riedener explained that these conversations give him the opportunity to spread his gospel about cabin motorcycles being efficient.
That seems rather obvious, doesn't it?
Even after collecting $2.5 million Riedener admitted, "We're certainly not capable of high-volume production. That would have to come from another organization, not us. This vehicle is all hand-built. It requires 700 hours of fabrication, so it's expensive and will continue to be low volume."
So from the mouth of the team leader, the E-Tracer is and will forever be a toy for rich greenies, not a safe, affordable and desirable production vehicle for regular people dealing with $4-a-gallon gas.
Having stumbled upon fodder supporting the long-term irrelevance of the Automotive X-Prize, we asked Riedener to let us drive it. Looking shocked, the real estate developer and transportation dabbler claimed we needed four days of instruction before we could operate the motorcycle with retractable outrigger-style training wheels. In lieu of, we accepted a ride.
Yoga-loving contortionists will have no problem entering the rear seat. In the form-fitting bucket with legs splayed wide around the driver's chair OB-GYN-stirrup style, we realized a quick exit was out of the question, especially if the bike tipped over on its left side (the canopy opens on the left).
Hit the track and the immediate torque from the E-Tracer's 150kW electric motor feels good, and thanks to the bike's long wheelbase, the ride is ultra smooth. Dip into the accelerator and road noise even helps to drown out the manic whirring of the electric motor enough to make you think you're driving a real bike. As speed increases, the outriggers that helped provide the bike a tricycle-like feeling at lower speeds fold up into the body. But, pulling to a stop, if the driver doesn't manually trigger the outriggers, the unit falls over like a guy cold cocked with a brick. For $123,000, the outriggers should probably self deploy.
After a five-minute ride, I concluded the E-Tracer has about as much to do with transportation for the masses as a Hot Wheels racer.
Another X-Prize winner, Edison2, won a $5-million share of the Progressive Insurance-sponsored prize booty with a 102.5 mpg-e performance. Ron Mathis, Edison2's Chief of Design said, "I wouldn't want to minimize the task of getting the car to market, and the prize money is helping us do that. We also had accrued debt getting through the X-Prize, so some of the winnings went toward that." Demonstrating that Edison2 is staffed by true believers who didn't view the X-Prize as a geeky engineer money grab, the winning team is still together. Nobody took their share and split.
When asked directly about whether the winning Very Light Car could be produced in the form that it won the X-Prize competition, Mathis chose his words carefully and said that the Very Light Car, "was designed to win the competition." Mathis went on to explain that a version of the Very Light Car could be produced for third-world countries but that the company didn't presently see a market in North America.
Li-Ion Motors, the second $2.5-million X-Prize winner may be doing the most with their booty and increased visibility. PR Manager Rich Ralston said, "Winning the X-Prize validated our battery management technologies." The company's two-seat commuter car, the Wave II, achieved 187 mpg-e in the X-Prize competition.
Li-Ion Motors hopes that the Wave II and the company's high-performance Inizio sports car will pass U.S. crash tests and gain federal approvals no later than the second quarter of 2012. The challenges for this company that's never serial produced vehicles are huge.
Pending federal approvals, the company has production capacity of 30 to 40 vehicles per month from a facility in North Carolina. In anticipation of great things, Li-Ion Motors entered into a purchase agreement for land in Alberta, Canada, on which they plan to build a higher-volume factory.
Ralston said, "If everybody in America drove a Wave II, we'd be exporting oil right now." While the statement might be true, it's silly hyperbole and completely irrelevant coming from a company that might be able to produce as many cars in a year as Ford builds in 30 minutes. The bigger issue is whether there will be enough demand for the $39,000 Wave II if it eventually meets all required standards. Certainly, every American won't want to drive a two-seat car that looks like a frog being wheeled out from a high-speed wind tunnel.
At this point, the Automotive X-Prize shows little to no chance of revolutionizing the car world through its science-fair-meets-Great-Race circus. Preston Tucker has a better shot of building an electric vehicle that's safe, affordable, desirable and capable of mass production than this competition. And he's been dead since 1956.
Rex Roy is a freelance automotive journalist based in Detroit.