Perhaps the biggest winner of the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE competition is the X PRIZE Foundation itself. The organization, formed in 1996 with the Ansari X PRIZE competition to stimulate private spaceflight, not only issued a challenge to see if automakers could build a vehicle that could get 100 miles per gallon (or the electric equivalent, measured as mpge), it found three teams capable of meeting the challenge.

"There's a science to designing a prize: It must be audacious but achievable," X PRIZE Foundation Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis said Friday as the competition's winners gathered at New York City's Classic Car Club in a sort of a victory lap (they had been announced the day before at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.). The competition offered engineers some portion of a $10 million prize if they could meet a clear goal on a set deadline, with several checkpoints along the way. If that goal hadn't been met, none of the prize would have been awarded.

The size of the prize was chosen to give the competition credentials and provide the initial motivation for contestants, Diamandis said. It now also helps the winners defray some of their costs at exactly the time they most need an infusion of funding, he added.

By defining the goal and not the way to accomplish that goal, the foundation sought to stimulate creativity in a society that has increasingly become risk averse, Diamandis said. Within the confines of the competition, "if you win, you get the glory," he said. "But if you lose, you don't get any blame."

Another objective of the competition is to change the way people think about innovation. For example, the original X PRIZE was designed in part to help the public understand that the government isn't the only entity capable of space flight, according to Diamandis. The next X PRIZE competition, the Google Lunar X PRIZE, is offering $60 million (half chipped in by Google and the other half from NASA) to land a robotic rover on the moon and use it to complete certain objectives.

Mooresville, N.C.'s Li-ion Motors, which won $2.5 million in the "alternative side-by-side" vehicle category, plans to begin production of 39,000 Wave II vehicles in December. The initial cost for a Wave II is expected to be just under $40,000, although Li-ion team leader Ron Cerven on Friday said the company will continue to work on the technology to make it more efficient and eventually drive down the cost. For example, the car is going back into the wind tunnel for additional testing—the company believes it can surpass 200 mpge.

The prototype Wave II that won the X PRIZE has a body that's essentially made up of four fiberglass pieces. Steel bands run throughout the body to protect passengers in the event of a collision, Cerven said. Work will also continue on the materials used to make the car's body. Germany's SAERTEX Group makes a reinforcing fabric that Li-ion plans to use to make future versions of the Wave stronger and lighter.

Swiss firm Peraves AG won the $2.5 million prize for the best alternative vehicle in which passengers sit in tandem, as on a motorcycle. Its battery-powered E-Tracer is essentially an enclosed motorcycle based on the company's MonoTracer body. Peraves designed a new electric powertrain for the X PRIZE competition. Peraves has spent an estimated $10 million over the past 25 years developing its vehicles.

Riding an E-Tracer will require a motorcycle license and a bit of training, particularly in steering the vehicle, said Jim Lorimer, who sells Peraves vehicles in the U.S. through a Glenn Allen, Va. company called 21st Century Motoring. He adds that E-Tracer riders should at the very least be familiar with the concept of countersteering, a technique motorcyclists use to initiate a turn toward a given direction by first steering counter to the desired direction. Peraves is hoping to bring the E-Tracer to market in the fall of 2011. A gas-powered MonoTracer costs about $77,000 today, and an electric-powered E-Tracer is expected to cost about $100,000. The company's goal is to sell at least 100 per year.

The Very Light Car built by Charlottesville, Va.'s Edison2 stands apart for the other vehicles in the X PRIZE winner's circle for two very significant reasons—work on the car started from scratch more than two years ago and the car features a biofuel-powered internal combustion engine. It would have been easier for Edison2 to put an electric motor in its car, but the team's goal was to build a vehicle that would do its thermal conversion onboard and still achieve more than 100 miles per gallon, founder and CEO Oliver Kuttner said. "We didn't want the X PRIZE to be just an electric car competition," he said, adding that many of the other entrants in the mainstream car category were road cars converted into electric vehicles.

Edison2 built the car's suspension system into its wheels, which protrude from the car like a Formula racer. If applied to any car (not just the Very Light Car), this suspension system could make any car 180 kilograms lighter, Kuttner said.

The next phase for Edison2 is making improvements to its Very Light Car. The first area of improvement will be in the car's fuel efficiency, Kuttner says. Once the car is as efficient as it can be, the engineers will address the issues required to make the car more appealing to the general public, for example the addition of front and rear bumpers and a redesigned door that's easier to operate. The time it takes Edison2 to bring its car to market will depend upon how much funding the company can raise. In the meantime, they're looking to earn revenue by licensing out some of the technology designed for the car.

Images courtesy of Larry Greeemeier/Scientific American