When Martin Lydell was a hospital vice-president in Jamestown, New York, he spent his free time building high-efficiency automobile engines. In fact, he was so devoted to his hobby that he retired early to pursue it: twelve hours a day, seven days a week, hacking and tinkering his way to a gas-powered, battery-assisted car that runs on an engine that doesn’t generate waste heat.

“People have been trying to do that for 50 years,” says Lydell.

Lydell’s car is just one of more than 50 expected to compete for the $10 million Automotive X Prize over the next two years. The challenge is to build a vehicle that is energy efficient, clean, and safe—and in the process, turn the auto industry upside-down.

The international contest is organized by the X-Prize Foundation, a nonprofit whose 2004 Ansari X Prize contest took commercial space flight from science fiction to business plan in five short years.

This time around, with the auto industry’s green prototypes still years from mass production, and the fuel economy of the average American car barely budging in the last 20 years, the goal is more immediate.

The winning model will need to travel 100 miles on a single gallon of gasoline or its electric equivalent, emitting just 200 grams of greenhouse gases—barely a tenth of what is now spewed by the typical exhaust pipe. It must also be assembly-line ready; the goal isn’t a concept car for flower-power techies, but a mainstream replacement for gas guzzlers that now produce nearly one-fifth of US greenhouse gas emissions.

Formally at stake is at least $10 million in prize money, with the sponsor and exact amount due to be revealed when the contest is formally launched at the New York Auto Show later this month. While only one designer will win the prize money, there won’t be any losers: The point isn’t to crown a champion, but to spur innovation and call clean car makers into the spotlight. “We’re going to see a lot of new people and technologies introduced to this industry,” says Cristin Lindsay, senior director of the Automotive X Prize. “We’re looking to introduce a new generation of vehicles, not just one winning way.”

Lydell’s car will be the size of a Honda Civic. Less orthodox is the plan of FuelVapor Technologies, a British Columbia-based company whose car seats two, rests on three wheels, and looks like a chopped-off raindrop. It doesn’t just run on fuel, but on—as per the name—fuel vapor, though the company won’t say just how.

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” jokes company spokesman Mike Zimmerman.

It’s a very different approach than that taken by Kinetic Vehicles of Creswell, Oregon. They’re putting their blueprints in the public domain and building with parts found in local salvage yards —specifically, a small diesel engine and body of a Lotus Seven. “We’re not shooting to win,” says company president Jack McCormack, a former maker of remote-controlled planes. “We’re showing what can be done using easily available, off-the-shelf stuff.”

While McCormack is thinking local, New York City’s Visionary Vehicles has national dreams. They’re building the first of what will become a whole line of cars powered by lithium batteries, simpler and more efficient than the guts of the Toyota Prius. And cars are just the beginning. They eventually want to sell batteries and chargers—an entire “infrastructure,” says company founder Malcolm Bricklin—to dealers and manufacturers across the country.

This army of would-be vehicular Willy Wonkas raises an obvious question: Why can’t the auto industry do the same thing right now?

“They’d not only have to invest in new technology, but get rid of what they’ve invested hundreds of billions of dollars in,” says Bricklin.

Mike Zimmerman echoed his criticism. “They have too much infrastructure tied up,” he says. “But ten or fifteen years from now, they’re going to say, the little guys aren't so little any more—and they're doing what we said we couldn’t.”

Story by Brandon Keim. This article originally appeared in Plenty in March 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

$10M prize for green car competition
Fifty international teams will vie for the Automotive X Prize, building vehicles that are energy efficient, clean, and safe.