X Prize book gives "Ingenious" story behind 100 mpg futility

“Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America” by Jason Fagone; Crown, 386 pages ($26)

Unfolding over three years and involving 80 cars, 67 teams, millions of dollars and hundreds of maxed-out credit cards, according to “Ingenious” author Jason Fagone, the Automotive X Prize, with its $10 million lure to whatever entity was able to create a safe, practical, 100 mpg car, was supposed to change the way vehicles were built forever. Instead, it’s a contest that has ultimately yielded little in the way of mainstream product.

But for a brief moment in time, the prize was a hotbed of automotive innovation the likes of which hadn’t been seen for a century.

The appalling truth is that the Ford Model T achieved 20 mpg in 1908. A century later, the average U.S. car’s fuel economy had only improved to a measly 21 mpg. Was a 100-mpg car a possibility or merely a pipe dream? The Automotive X Prize was designed to find out.

The follow-up to the X Prize competition that challenged non-government groups to launch a reusable manned spacecraft in 2004, the Automotive X Prize was the brain child of Peter Diamandis, a Harvard med school graduate who dreamed of democratizing space travel and who hoped to spur further innovation in personal transportation.

To compete, teams were required to send a check for $1,000 and a letter stating their intentions. Still, it was “difficult to tell if an applicant was earnest, a charlatan or insane,” Fagone writes. One applicant claimed his car ran on urea. Another proposed trash for its fuel. Early competitors included well-known names, such as Neil Young, who submitted a letter of intent to convert his 1959 Lincoln Continental to alternative fuels, and Tesla, which dropped out to develop the all-electric sedan that has since become a critic’s darling, the Model S.

Before the competition began in earnest, half the applications had been discarded, leaving 43 teams, 53 vehicles and the goal of reaching 100 mpg or its equivalent. Over the course of a competition that ran from 2007 through 2010, competing garage-built vehicles were tested for acceleration, braking, durability, fuel economy and emissions and held to standards that shifted throughout the competition, to maddening effect for its stalwart competitors.

With “Ingenious,” Fagone has penned a thought-provoking book that will appeal to automotive efficiency geeks and readers who long for America’s can-do past, though, in the end, it is disheartening. The contest’s emphasis on efficiency to the exclusion of marketability is painfully clear in the epilogue.

None of the winning cars has gone into production. They haven’t been funded or snatched up by established automakers. Indeed, many of the cars’ creators have tried, and failed, to find employment in the mainstream auto industry, raising questions about the prize’s ultimate value.


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