Super-Light, 100 MPG Car Takes $5M X Prize

Here’s a surprise: The biggest winner in the $10-million Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE competition, which is designed to inspire a new generation of low-polluting cars, is not an electric car, but a car that weighs less than 1,000 pounds and is powered by an internal combustion engine.

The car is known, fittingly, as the Very Light Car #98 (left), and it won the $5 million prize in the “mainstream” category, which required cars to seat four people, run on four wheels and have a driving range of at least 200 miles. The Very Light Car runs on E85, a blend of ethanol and gasoline, and it was built by a team known as Edison 2, led by a German-born entrepreneur named Oliver Kuttner and based in Charlottesville, Va.

The Edison2 Very Light Car bested 111 competing teams and 136 cars from around the world. All sought to build practical safe and super fuel-efficient vehicles capable of achieving 100 miles per gallon or the energy equivalent, a threshold that the Very Light Car just managed to achieve, performing at 100.3 MPGe.

The team that developed the Very Light Car, which includes race car drivers who have won at  Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring, decided to stick with an internal combustion engine because batteries add weight, as well as cost. While praising electric cars as “here to stay” on its blog, Edison2 says:

Currently, however, electrics cars have real issues. Batteries are heavy, big and costly. With electric drives cars get heavier, performance suffers and costs go up.

Kuttner, a race car driver, said the car, which is made of low-cost and recycleable materials, could potentially go on sale for $20,000 – if it reaches the market. There are no current plans for mass production, but Kuttner said he’s talked with several big companies, including General Motors, which tested the Edison2 in its wind tunnels. One obvious hurdle to be overcome is safety — the car isn’t equipped with air bags or other standard safety features and, presumably, it would come out on the losing end in a crash with a much heavier car or truck.

Li-Ion Wave II

Two battery-powered cars each won $2.5 million in prize money. Li-ion Motors Corp.'s Wave II, built by a startup based in Charlotte, N.C., won in the “alternative side-by-side” category with a car that delivered 187 MPGe. This category included two-seaters where the driver and passenger sit side by side.

A car known as the E-Tracer 79, built by a Swiss company called X-Tracer and created by Arnold Wagner, a former SwissAir jumbo jet pilot and aircraft designer, won in the “alternative tandem class.” This category also includes cars that seat two people, but one can sit behind the other. While the E-Tracer may look more like a motorcycle than a car (see below), it has two additional wheels that fold into the car; they drop down at slower speeds to provide stability.

The E-Tracer was the efficiency king of the competition, registering an eye-popping 205.3 MPGe. (Results were verified by experts including U.S. Department of Energy labs.) It looks like the E-Tracer could be fun to drive, too!

X-Tracer's E-TracerThis morning, I attended the X-Prize awards ceremony, which was held outdoors in Washington and, oddly, featured a bunch of dignitaries, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, long-winded Congressman Ed Markey, and a DOE official, most of whom had little or nothing to do with the prize.

The contrast was unintended but hard to miss — between a national government that is paralyzed when it comes to climate and energy, and the inventiveness, creativity and energy of startups, engineers and entrepreneurs unleashed by a mere $10 million prize, which amounts to chump change in the federal budget.