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Automotive X Prize

By Jeanette Joy Fisher

Regardless of what automakers tell us, the internal combustion engine has changed very little in the past hundred years. In fact, Ford's Model T averaged 28 mpg, while Ford's current model of the Explorer barely makes 16 mpg. No matter how you look at it, that isn't what you would call progress.

However, Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, hopes to force automakers to do better by offering the first Automotive X Prize, which will focus on the creation of a new breed of vehicles that will be far more fuel efficient than anything offered by the current automobile industry. Part of the innovative rules for the competition will be that the winning vehicle will be made available to consumers at a price they can afford.

The X Prize Foundation hopes to encourage entrepreneurs to bring about significant changes in the way vehicles are propelled, with one of the main focuses still being on the use of fossil fuel, since the vast majority of consumers still would prefer to be able to use a "gas station" model when refueling.

The Auto X Prize money hasn't been officially announced, but they awarded $10 million to the winner of their competition for the world's first private spaceflight in 2004. The challenge this time: build a vehicle that gets up to 250 mpg while creating little or no pollution. It's a change that's sorely needed, and since the government and Big 3 automakers don't seem capable of making it happen, perhaps prizes such as the X Prize will bring about the change.

There are other prizes being offered by other organizations, and surprisingly, some of the largest potential awards come from the federal government. For instance, the Department of Energy (DOE) has been authorized to award up to $10 million in incentives for technology that can be used to affordably convert wood and other fibers into ethanol. The DOE also has been authorized to offer what's been dubbed the Freedom Prize, a $5 million award for workable methods to significantly lessen America's dependence on foreign oil. Unfortunately, congress has yet to appropriate any actual money to fund either one of those prizes.

The good news for consumers in the long run is that the federal government may be catching on the fact that large cash awards can stimulate innovation in the private sector, but it's been a long time coming. Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 in pursuit of a $25,000 prize, but the government has done little since then to stimulate interest in alternative energy sources or fuel efficient vehicles.

The technology is out there, and if American entrepreneurs have enough incentive, our energy problems can be defeated. Here's hoping the X Prize Foundation's auto competition will be the first giant step in that process. It worked for private space flight, so there's no reason not to believe it won't work for those of us here on Earth, as well.

Copyright 2006 Jeanette J. Fisher

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