Fuel Efficiency: the X Factor

By Warren Brown
Sunday, September 9, 2007


In a few days, I will travel 189 miles northwest of here to attend the 62nd Frankfurt Auto Show, one of the premier exhibits on the international auto show calendar.

It promises to be a grand and newsworthy event. Already, global auto companies are trolling for journalists to give them sneak previews, with test-drives included, of their latest products.

That is why I'm here in Munich, a few days before the Frankfurt show gets underway, peeping into the future product portfolios of Audi and Volkswagen, angling for a long run in the new Audi A8, which I hear is a spectacular luxury sedan.

It's all fun stuff, but the automotive world that stages the Frankfurt event and similar corporate car exhibitions is in danger of being turned upside down.

There is a revolution afoot, but it isn't taking place in the engineering, development and design facilities of traditional automobile manufacturers. And it isn't being funded the traditional way, with money from sales of mass-market cars and trucks or with a flood of funds from Wall Street.

Like most uprisings, the automotive revolt is occurring at grass-roots level. Its stirrings can be found in a garage in Delray Beach, Fla., where inventor Gerald Rowley has come up with a version of a fuel-vaporizing device that has the demonstrated ability to increase the gasoline mileage of a midsize sedan by 50 percent.

It's happening in the mind of businessman and lawyer Miles Rubin, 78, who has launched a fleet of small electric cars that is saving gas money for universities and government-agency transportation systems.

It's taking place in technical universities worldwide, where a new generation of inventors and engineers think it's possible to produce and market a safe and affordable car that gets 100 miles per gallon.

And it's reaching a flashpoint in the executive suites of Visionary Vehicles in New York, where legendary entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin has set his sights on winning the $20 million Automotive X Prize that will go to the individual or group who beats everyone else to market with a 100-miles-per-gallon or energy-use-equivalent car.

The Automotive X Prize is the brainchild of the X Prize Foundation of St. Louis, founded in 1995 by Peter H. Diamandis, a MIT-trained aerospace engineer and Harvard-trained physician who is considered a key figure in the personal spaceflight industry.

Several years ago, Diamandis introduced the Ansari X Prize, which was to be awarded to the first non-government organization to launch a reusable, manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. The $10 million prize, in honor of the demonstration of the possible commercialization of space travel, was won Oct. 4, 2004, by Mojave Aerospace Ventures for the flight of SpaceShipOne, designed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan.

The X Prize inspires revolution by demanding audacity, by forcing change through intense competition, which is what Diamandis and his group hope to accomplish in the matter of automotive fuel economy. The ultimate idea, he says, is to benefit humanity -- in this case, to reduce our gluttonous consumption of oil and to relieve all of the ills, military and environmental violence chief among them, attached to that appetite.

So far, 31 participants, including Bricklin's Visionary Vehicles, have entered the Automotive X Prize competition. Most of the competitors include universities, relatively small companies and private inventors.

Traditional car companies are welcome to participate. As of this writing, however, it appears that none has signed up for the chance to produce the first safe, affordable, market-ready 100-mpg or energy-use-equivalent car. Their absence makes Bricklin salivate.

"We're going to win this prize," he said. "We're going to have a plug-in, gas-electric car ready for testing in 2009," when Automotive X Prize officials plan to stage a race involving all contest entrants that meet the 100-mpg requirement or its equivalent.

Should he win that race, and all the money and publicity that would go with it, Bricklin said he could bring his proposed super-fuel-efficient car to market in 2010.

Bricklin, of course, might not win. But it really does not matter, as long as someone does. And that, dear readers, would beat anything on exhibit at anybody's international car show.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company