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

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; B01

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.

Now, the Very Light Car has a small internal combustion engine that runs on an ethanol-gasoline blend and relies on low weight and aerodynamics to maximize efficiency. The body is made of carbon composite that feels like stiff cardboard. (A consumer model would probably be made of aluminum.)

Instead of paint, it is covered with a lighter vinyl film. The wheels, without the tires, can be held up with a finger. More conventional-looking competitors, including two that tried to improve upon the Toyota Prius, were eliminated early on.

"The great legacy of the X Prize is, it shows you can't make a change continuing what you are doing," Kuttner says. "There is no super Prius. There never will be. It requires a departure from the normal."

Mathis and other Edison2 employees say the light-car project lured them from car racing because there are fewer rules, just a simple goal, whereas in racing, multiple rules designed to make competition fair have stifled innovation. Creating the Very Light Car has been a journey of trial and error, down to the last bolt. Mathis, a former engineer for Audi's racing program, designed almost all of the parts, many of which were made by machine shops around Lynchburg.

"It's not like a TV show like 'Overhaulin,' ' where they order parts out of a catalog and you're done," he says, referring to a cable TV program about auto makeovers.

Having fewer rules means constant debate. If something is not working, Mathis hears about it. On a recent morning, Mouzayck lets loose a stream of expletives to Mathis about a task he has been given.

"It's [really] excessive," he says. "And I'm the mechanic that has to do it."

It takes Mathis a few minutes to talk him down.

The Very Light Car beat more than 136 vehicles created by 111 teams from 11 countries. Other teams tried to go all-electric but found it difficult to make the required 200 miles without running out of power. Edison2 is also in the running to win an additional $2.5 million in a category for two-seat vehicles, where it faces several competitors.

Vehicles competing for the X Prize must also meet emission and safety standards. Edison2 did not have enough prototypes to sacrifice one in a crash test and was allowed to make a case on paper that its cars are safe based on their design.

The Very Light Cars have neither air bags nor side mirrors, but their diamond-shaped chassis, Edison2 says, deflects impacts and creates more crushable space so the wheels would get squished, not the passengers. Smaller, lighter cars also have shorter stopping distances and better handling to help avoid accidents.

With the finals looming, about a dozen employees are doing their best to prepare for any contingency. Kuttner, in jeans and a black T-shirt with a torn pocket, huddles with Mouzayck and Stephen Priestman, 45, the electronics coordinator, to strategize over what to do if the weather is unusually hot during the road tests. The hotter the vehicle, the less fuel-efficient it is. They come up with an idea involving ice packs that campers use.

These days, Kuttner spends more of his time figuring out Edison2's next steps. The way forward is not obvious. The last X Prize, awarded in 2004, didn't exactly change the world. The winner built and launched the world's first private vehicle into space. Billionaire Richard Branson later licensed the technology for Virgin Galactic, a space flight company he set up in 1999, but it has not had its maiden flight.

For Kuttner, the prize would be a valuable endorsement of the business he envisions for after the contest: licensing Edison2's innovations to established carmakers. He hopes to set up a cluster of lightweight technology firms in Virginia or Michigan to produce the next generation of the Very Light Car.

They might have a hard time, says auto industry analyst Maryann Keller, who called Detroit "not an industry that is readily accepting of outside ideas." A decade ago, she says, the makers of a very light car called the Hypercar had a hard time getting automakers' attention.

Kuttner is banking on the fact that fuel efficiency is a higher priority now. "We love just producing ideas," he says. But he knows what he's up against: "History is littered with people who tried to build a better car."

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