Why do major leaps forward come so rarely in the auto industry? There are of course the usual suspects: crash test standards, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requirements, European pedestrian safety protections; entrenched capital investment in infrastructure and manufacturing methods; long vehicle development cycles — the whole legacy kaboodle of a mature and highly regulated industry. But I spent four years researching, interviewing, and writing about inventors who aren’t limited to thinking like the auto companies, and who made cars that are drastic departures from the ones we’re driving now. They did this as part of a grand-challenges approach to innovation — a $10 million X Prize that pushed inventors to build the super-efficient car of the future.
Auto companies like to sneer at legitimately futuristic cars, calling them “science projects” and saying consumers will never buy them. I believe this is a mistake. Because ultimately, they don’t really know. They’ve never tried to make and sell cars like the ones that ended up excelling in the X Prize contest. And they’re awfully good at blaming consumer timidity for their own engineering fears and failures.
Announced in 2007 and staged in 2010, the Progressive Insurance Auto X Prize attracted diverse interest — not from big automakers but from lone inventors, garage hackers, students, entrepreneurs, and startup companies all over the world, all with different ideas about how to shape the future of the automobile. To win a piece of the $10 million prize pot, teams had to build a safe, practical car that could travel 100 miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas (MPGe) and emit 200 grams per mile or less of CO2 (a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming).