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Auto X Prize revs up

The multimillion-dollar Automotive X Prize is finally rolling up to the starting line after more than a year of tinkering. Draft rules for the competition, aimed at encouraging the development of "production-capable" cars that get the energy equivalent of 100 miles per gallon, will be unveiled next week at the New York Auto Show. The X Prize Foundation is targeting a race between the prize finalists in 2009.

The rules are due to come out during the auto show's press preview, which begins on Wednesday, and will be put out for a 60-day public comment period before they're set in stone, said Mark Goodstein, the executive director of the Automotive X Prize program.

"You only get one chance to release the final rules for a competition, and we want to make sure they are right when they are final," he told me on Thursday. "This is an attempt to reach out to folks worldwide who would like to compete ... or have done this kind of thing before and know about the hidden land mines."

Many of the details surrounding the rules are being held back until next week, but Goodstein said they won't lend themselves easily to a quick sound bite. "Fifty pages is nothing to sneeze at," he said.

Why do the rules have to be so complex? It's a tall order to create a contest that will truly reward breakthroughs in what's already one of America's biggest economic sectors.

The organizers don't want to rule out any technology that can produce more efficient cars, whether that's biofuels, hydrogen, plug-in power, solar or just a better breed of fossil-fuel power. For that reason, the basic metric is the energy equivalent of 100 miles per gallon of gasoline, or 100 mpge, in a combination of city and highway driving. Defining how that will be measured, particularly for alternate energy sources, can get tricky.

The vehicles have to be marketable as well - so the ability to create a "production-capable" (as opposed to "production-ready") car will be factored into the rules. If you have a brainstorm that involves driving mice around in a tinfoil-covered lifting body, or flying people around in dirigibles, you'll want to think again. Not that there's anything wrong with lifters or dirigibles, of course.

For months, Goodstein and his colleagues have been struggling over whether the goal of the X Prize should be to reduce emissions, or reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, or increase energy efficiency. Here's how he encapsulated the Automotive X Prize's purpose this week:

"This is a goal to inspire a new generation of super-efficient vehicles that will break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of planet change. That really is it. Those two goals have been the tent poles as we've done our thing. ...

"The industry is stuck, and it's not anybody's fault. That's just the dynamic. ... Everyone points their fingers behind closed doors. We need to introduce a bright spotlight in a different location and get everyone to rush over there."

Goodstein, a veteran of dot-com and e-commerce ventures, dared to use a chemistry metaphor - comparing the automotive industry to a supersaturated solution that's just waiting for a little push to churn out cool new stuff.

"One little thing can be put into it, and thkk!" he said.

Of course, the Automotive X Prize won't be just "one little thing." In the past, Goodstein has said the competition's purse might have to be even larger than the $10 million spaceflight X Prize that was won back in 2004. This week he said his team wasn't yet ready to announce how big the purse will be, other than to say it will involve a multimillion-dollar payout.

"The purse is not insubstantial for the smaller teams, but they're really doing this for the exposure," Goodstein said.

If the program develops the way Goodstein expects, that exposure would reach its height in 2009, when the X Prize Foundation would "stage races to test the work of these teams in a very high-profile way."

The Automotive X Prize is just one of the foundation's follow-ups to the original space prize - standing alongside the annual X Prize Cup, the $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, the $10 million Archon X Prize for genomics and other projects that are still percolating. But if the automotive contest lives up to Goodstein's hopes, it could be the foundation's biggest world-changer. What do you think? Feel free to leave your comments below, and watch for updates in MSNBC.com's automotive news section.