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The last super-cars standing

The $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize competition finished up its final on-track round, and the results are clear: If anyone is going to win the $5 million contest for four-seat cars, it's going to be the Virginia-based Edison2 team. If anyone is going to win the $2.5 million contest for alternative two-seat tandem vehicles, it's going to be the Swiss X-Tracer team. It's only the last $2.5 million - set aside for two-seat, side-by-side cars - that is up for grabs.

Edison2 and X-Tracer are sure things, because those teams have the only cars still standing in each of those contests ... two in each category. The side-by-side contest has five cars entered, and based on a runoff race that was conducted this morning, it looks as if it's down to the Finnish RaceAbout team vs. the Wave II from Nevada-based Li-Ion Motors. Those teams finished the course at the Michigan International Speedway just seconds apart, with RaceAbout leading by a nose.

"Only performance stats will tell who wins the big prize in this category," the X Prize Foundation's Amanda Stiles reported in a Twitter update from the race track in Brooklyn, Mich.

The final results aren't exactly "final" yet: As Stiles mentioned, performance data will be used to adjust the times for the runoff. That includes readings for overnight battery charging, because all five of the runoff's competitors are all-electric. As a result, the adjusted results won't be available until Wednesday. (Check back here for updates.)

What's more, all nine of the cars still left standing have to go through laboratory tests at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois next month. Those lab tests, which are run on a dynamometer instead of a race track, will verify that the winning cars really can get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon of gasoline, or MPGe.

That's the main point of the X Prize competition: to promote the development of cars that are ultra-efficient as well as safe and salable.

Edison2 has taken one approach: Its aerodynamic Very Light Cars weigh about 800 pounds, which is half the weight of a Smart Car and a third the weight of a Mini Cooper. The spacey-looking vehicles are powered by one-cylinder motorcycle engines that burn an 85 percent ethanol fuel blend. Even with a tiny engine, the cars have no trouble getting up to 60 mph and reportedly can hit 110 mph - thanks to a lightweight body construction that nevertheless satisfies safety standards.

All the other X Prize vehicles are battery-powered. Some, like the ZAP Alias and the RaceAbout, look like pint-sized sports cars. Others, like the X-Tracer vehicles, look like beefed-up motorcycles. And the cars fielded by Li-ion, Aptera and the German TW4XP team look like visitors from another, cooler planet.

Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, told me today that this diversity is exactly what the competition is all about. "The future of energy is going to be diverse," Diamandis said. "I think oil and gasoline are not going away. We're going to be driving to make it much more efficient. And I think electric is on the rise. We're going to see a new generation of vehicles."

But will drivers buy cars that look like outer-space pods?

"About five years ago, I'm not sure how many people would have thought that the Smart Car was something that was similar to the type of cars people are buying today," Diamandis said. "So people's vision of what a car should look like could be changing. And then also ... these technologies from super-lightweight vehicles to control systems to suspension systems, and individual technologies might be picked off by an automobile manufacturer. That's what we need to get to revolutionary change from the evolutionary change we've been seeing."

Even the also-rans can contribute to the auto revolution, Diamandis said. The competition started out with 136 vehicles from 111 teams, and each round of the competition has eliminated teams with good ideas that couldn't quite make the grade. During just the past nine days of speedway finals, six cars have fallen by the wayside.

The latest to fade included Western Washington University's Viking sports car, which couldn't accomplish a double-lane-change maneuver on Monday. That pass-fail safety test was required to advance.

"This has been a grueling event because the standards are so high," Eric Leonhardt, the director of WWU's Vehicle Research Institute, told The Bellingham Herald. "Just to be able to have our students experience this is a great opportunity. This has really been a classroom on wheels, to get our students to get all this experience in a very short while."

Edison2's two-seat tandem car was eliminated due to mechanical troubles, leaving X-Tracer's two entrants as the last super-cars standing in that category.

Four other cars didn't make the grade during last week's fuel efficiency and range tests: the Amp electric vehicle, Commuter Cars' Tango, Spira's gasoline-powered car and Tata Motors' Indica Vista EVX. And there could be further eliminations during next month's verification stage at the Argonne Lab. Some of the competitors, such as Edison2, were just on the edge of meeting the 100 MPGe standard during the on-track runs. Those numbers will be averaged with next month's lab test numbers - and if a car's average doesn't come up to 100 MPGe, it could still be eliminated.

"It's not a slam dunk by any means," Diamandis said. "It's an X Prize, of course, and we try to make these on the edge of audaciousness that's achievable."

If multiple cars satisfy the 100 MPGe standard in the tandem two-seater category, their adjusted time in today's combined efficiency and performance test, which went for 100 miles, will serve as the tie-breaker. RaceAbout, Li-ion and TW4XP finished the course, while Aptera and ZAP fell short due to battery issues. The only way those last two teams could win the $2.5 million would be if none of the first three teams hit an average of 100 MPGe after next month's lab tests.

"There's still a lot to go," technical team director Steve Wesoloski said. "It's not over."

Brian Silva, Progressive Insurance's chief marketing officer, said he was most impressed by the level of commitment shown by all the teams. "It's the human interest side of this thing that gives you hope," he told me. "You know what? There are people out there who are going to make a difference in this world."

Once all the numbers are crunched from this month's on-track finals and next month's lab tests, the winners will be selected for a Sept. 16 awards ceremony. Any money that is not awarded will go back to Progressive, which is providing the $10 million purse as well as the cash for administering the competition.

Diamandis feels as if the contest has already had as much impact as the best-known X Prize to date: the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private-sector spaceflight, which was won by the team behind SpaceShipOne back in 2004.

"It's really about changing the paradigm," he said. "When we did the Ansari X Prize for spaceflight, the paradigm before was that only governments could fly into space. Afterwards, it was that you could be a private citizen and fly on a Virgin Galactic or a Space Adventures-Armadillo flight. The paradigm we're trying to change here is that, after the competition, we want people to know that you can have a beautiful, fast, affordable, safe car that also gets over 100 miles per gallon energy equivalent. You don't have to choose between safety and efficiency, or speed and efficiency, or cost and efficiency. You can have it all. That's the paradigm that we want, with our partners at Progressive Insurance, to get out there to the public."

But is that message really worth $10 million-plus to Progressive? "I'll tell you," Silva told me, "when you see the cars that are out here today, I really think that the 10 million dollars was a very effective use of the money."

Here's a list of the last super-cars standing after the final stage of X Prize on-track trials:

Mainstream Class Teams:
Mainstream Class vehicles must carry four or more passengers, have four or more wheels, and offer a 200-mile range.

Edison2, Lynchburg, Virginia (E85, two cars)

Alternative Class Teams:
Alternative Class vehicles must carry two or more passengers and allow for a 100-mile range.

Side-by-side seating:

Aptera Motors, Vista, California (Electric)
Li-ion Motors at EV Innovations, Mooresville, North Carolina (Electric)
RaceAbout Association, Helsinki, Finland (Electric)
TW4XP, Rosenthal, Germany (Electric)
ZAP, Santa Rosa, California (Electric)

Tandem seating:

X-Tracer Team Switzerland, Uster, Switzerland (Electric, two cars)

More about the Automotive X Prize:

Slideshow: Racing to beat 100 mpg
Light cars take on heavy trips
Cool car technologies you can't have now

Update for 11:55 p.m. ET July 28: The X Prize organizers have released the results of Tuesday's 100-mile runoff race:

"Team Li-Ion finished first by a narrow 0.179 seconds! RaceAbout placed second and TW4XP third by 11 minutes, 36.9 seconds.

"ZAP completed 48 laps and Aptera completed 18 laps. Both experienced mechanical issues that forced them off the track before completing the test.

"There were a few penalties assessed for speed violations:

· Team Li-ion received 1 penalty for driving under 45 mph
· RaceAbout received 2 penalties for exceeding 70 mph
· TW4XP had 4 penalties for being under 45 mph

"Mileage numbers are proving impressive given the stress of this real world challenge on the contenders. For those who completed the race, Team Li-Ion achieved a respectable 125 MPGe and RaceAbout achieved 100 MPGe. Though placing third, TW4XP achieved a remarkable 138.9 MPGe."

Here's what that means: If all of the cars going to next month's verification trials in Argonne come up to the 100 MPGe standard, Li-ion Motors wins the $2.5 million for the two-seat, side-by-side competition. If Li-ion is eliminated, Finland's RaceAbout wins. If both those cars are eliminated, Germany's TW4XP gets the money. If all three are eliminated, the X Prize judges will have to figure out whether ZAP or Alias would be eligible for the prize. But considering that all three of the finishing teams met or exceeded the 100 MPGe standard, it's almost a sure bet that the judges won't be facing such a scenario. In fact, it's almost a sure bet that Li-ion will be judged the winner sometime in the next two months.


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