The Michigan International Speedway west of Detroit is best known as a NASCAR site. So it was odd to be sitting in the press room last week talking to Eric Cahill as cars outside did some very slow laps.
The Progressive Automotive X Prize's city efficiency test was under way. That meant that futuristic sci-fi sculptures on wheels were creeping around the racetrack at 29 mph.
Inside, Cahill, the competition's senior director, says organizers want the $10 million contest to "accelerate the timetable" for fuel-efficient vehicles -- street-worthy cars getting 100 mpg or the equivalent.
X Prize organizers hope to generate consumer awareness for alternative powertrains. Major automakers already are paying attention to industry insurgents, he adds.
"Granted, they kind of downplay it and pooh-pooh it as one-off nut jobs, but there is a reason why companies like Nissan and GM and Mitsubishi are coming to market with electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles," Cahill says.
Major parts makers such as Continental, Michelin and Bosch are involved, as well as companies that aren't automotive suppliers. Cahill says one EV team bought its control panel from a farm-equipment supplier, then modified the software.
Competitors will road-test a batch of new technologies, including several variations of electric motors at the wheels to propel cars. The X Prize culminates in September, when the $10 million is given to winners in three categories.
The prize money will help a few small companies keep going for a while. But Cahill says even the winners will need considerably more capital to become full-fledged automakers: "It's risky. Some will succeed potentially beyond their wildest dreams and some will not. That's just the way it goes."