X Prize deadline looms for makers of lightweight, high-efficiency Very Light Car

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

LYNCHBURG, VA. -- Mechanic Bobby Mouzayck, 28, stands inside a former textile factory staring ruefully at the shell of something that looks like a cockpit that's missing the rest of the airplane.

"I'm so tired of looking at this thing," says Mouzayck, holding a cup of coffee in one hand. "I'm so tired of it."

The silver bullet-shaped mass in front of him is a lightweight, aerodynamic car that he has helped assemble, disassemble and reassemble several times. After two years of staring and tinkering, the reward is in sight.

The vehicle is called the Very Light Car, and two of them are the finalists in a category of the Progressive Automotive X Prize, an international competition to build the first car that can go 100 miles on a gallon of gas and at least 200 miles without refueling.

The winner will get $5 million, but the real payoff could be what's discovered along the way -- innovations that might one day help reduce the global consumption of oil and curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

Mouzayck works for the company that made the Very Light Car, Edison2, a collection of former race car engineers, mechanics and drivers working out of Lynchburg. They're led by Oliver Kuttner, 48, a Charlottesville real estate developer, former dealer of exotic Italian cars and a racing enthusiast.

The effort has cost Kuttner and his six investors more than $5 million. But Kuttner is not in it for the money. He wants to create a greener alternative to vehicles now on the road and help keep manufacturing jobs and know-how in the United States.

The prize is Edison2's to lose. To win, at least one of the company's two Very Light Cars must pass a final series of road and lab tests set to begin Sunday. With just a few days left to work out any kinks, everyone at the Lynchburg shop is pulling 12-, even 15-hour shifts, seven days a week.

"The last 10 percent takes the longest," Mouzayck says. A few sips of coffee, and he's back at work lining the front of a car with Styrofoam.

Created 14 years ago, the X Prize is modeled after the 1919 Orteig Prize, which was offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig to the first person who could fly nonstop between New York and Paris. An airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh claimed the $25,000 prize in 1927, and his feat helped spawn the aviation industry.

Similarly, the X Prize is designed to foster "radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity." That initially meant commercial space flight, a dream of the prize's creator, Peter Diamandis, an aerospace engineer and longtime advocate of space exploration. In recent years, the prize has expanded to other fields, including genomics and the automotive industry.

Edison2's strategy is radical, yet familiar. Kuttner named the firm after Thomas Edison in part because he thought the car the company built would have a big battery pack. But he and chief design engineer Ron Mathis, 50, discovered to their surprise that an all-electric car was highly inefficient; the battery required would be so heavy that it would waste energy propelling itself.

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