The Automotive X Prize, or AXP, has already attracted about 50 entries including two from Britain although the competition, along with the names of its wealthy backers, will not be formally announced until March.
The teams will then have a year to prepare for the first-round heats, in which they will have to prove their vehicles can exceed 75mpg. The following year, the competitors will battle it out in a final, 10-stage showdown in cities across the United States, with spectators able to watch on a live web link. In the finals, the cars will have to achieve at least 100mpg consistently less than a third of the 32mpg average fuel consumption of all cars on UK roads.
The competition is being launched against the backdrop of $100-a-barrel crude oil and, for motorists in Britain, the prospect of fuel soon costing 110p a litre, or £5 per gallon.
The company competing for the main prize must provide an affordable, safe, four-seat family car with the potential to appeal to ordinary buyers and a business plan to produce 10,000 a year. The team that meets the criteria and clocks up the best time across all 10 races will win the prize.
We dont want science projects, laboratory experiments or exclusive high-end products that most of us cant buy, says Don Foley, executive director of the AXP. We dont want vehicles that just look nice on the covers of magazines. We want super-efficient cars that people will want to go out and buy, right now.
The AXP is the latest initiative from the X Prize Foundation, founded by Dr Peter Diamandis, an expert in commercial space travel, in the United States in 1996 with the mission to stimulate revolution through competition. It was inspired by the amateur aviation competitions of the 1920s, which captured the public imagination and encouraged the development of commercial air travel. The first prize, the Ansari X Prize, was awarded in 2004 to Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer financed by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft.
Together they became the first team to build and launch twice in two weeks a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to more than 60 miles above the Earths surface. Rutan is now working with Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin boss, to pioneer space tourism.
There are X Prizes under way in the fields of lunar exploration and genomics, but the AXP is tackling more pressing concerns environmental sustainability and affordable transport for the foreseeable future. The latest predictions suggest oil prices could double to $200 a barrel by 2010.
While average fuel economy for British cars is 31mpg for petrol cars and 39mpg for diesel (with the overall average of 32mpg), the average fuel economy of cars in the US is just 20.2mpg. Diamandis is keen to point out that even the Model T Ford managed 25mpg. If we do this right, were going to draw a large line in the sand and say all cars we drove before this date are relegated to the history museums, he claims.
Among the competitors will be Dragonfly Technology of Northampton, founded by Dr John Davis, an aerodynamics specialist who has worked with Formula One teams from Lotus to Williams. He plans to produce a super-efficient petrol-engined car using technology pioneered in F1.
Were looking at a practical petrol car, not a bubble car or anything stupid, Davis says. Our entry uses the principles of hybrid cars, such as regenerative braking, but instead of using electronics to store energy in a battery, which is really not very efficient, this system is entirely mechanical and works by storing energy in the flywheel.
The car will have a predicted fuel economy in excess of 100mpg, with the possibility of going beyond that, and emissions of less than 120g/km. The competition is not restricted to cars with internal combustion engines. The only stipulation is that the fuel must be available to the car-buying public, which rules out hydrogen.
At the Auto Expo in Delhi last week the MDI company of Luxembourg unveiled a car that can run on compressed air, which it plans to enter for the AXP. MDI also claims to have signed a development contract with Tata, Indias largest car company.
Hybrid, plug-in hybrid or all-electric vehicles will also be among the entries to the competition. For electric vehicles, the same 100mpg rule applies, but it is converted into a standard number of units of energy a car consumes per mile.
Delta Motorsport, based near the Silverstone grand prix circuit in Northamptonshire, is working on an all-electric four-seater under the working name of Ulev, standing for ultra low emissions vehicle. Delta, established three years ago and more accustomed to making high-powered cars for race series, says its electric car will do 0-60mph in 6.5sec and has a top speed of 110mph and a range of up to 300 miles, thanks to a light monocoque chassis made of a carbon composite and its aerodynamic shape.
It easily exceeds the 100mpg-equivalent target in mixed motoring, and if customers were prepared to accept a reduced range about 180 miles it could be increased to the equivalent of almost 400mpg. It uses lithium-phosphate batteries, a type of lithium-ion battery of the sort used in mobile phones, but less prone to overheating and with a longer life. The company plans to sell the cars for £20,000-£25,000.
This is something we were looking at even before we stumbled upon the X Prize and realised all its criteria fitted in with our ambitions for the Ulev, says Nick Carpenter, co-director of the business.
According to AXP rules, the cars, as well as topping 100mpg, must emit no more than 200g/km of CO2 which may not sound ambitious, especially when you think that the average new car on sale in Britain today releases 165g/km. But Foley believes this would still be a step forward in the American market, where big is beautiful and a Mercedes-Benz E-class, with urban fuel economy of 23mpg (based on US figures), is considered a low-emissions vehicle. And for the purposes of the AXP, 200g/km is calculated as a well-to-wheel figure. So, whereas you might argue that some electric vehicles offer zero-emissions motoring, by the terms of the AXP you would also have to factor in the source of their electricity usually dirty old fossil fuels.
Based on these calculations, an all-electric vehicle needs to achieve the equivalent of 133mpg to pass the AXP emissions test. Teslas Roadster, a 130mph electric sports car that goes on sale in the US this year, doesnt qualify. Plus its only a two-seater. Instead, the company plans to enter the WhiteStar, a sporty four-door saloon with a predicted retail price of £25,000 half the cost of its Roadster.
The California-based Aptera company has an almost production-ready vehicle that it plans to enter for the alternative class of the AXP. In this class, competitors are freed from many of the restrictions of the mainstream competition, so Apteras three-wheel two-seater, the Typ-1, qualifies. This freakish contraption the product of allowing function to dictate form, according to its makers has a 50kW motor and a 120-mile range and will go on sale in the US this year, priced £13,000-£15,000.
Britains drivers travel a combined total distance of 247 billion miles a year (based on government data for 2005, the most recent figures available) and cars account for 11.7% of the nations CO2 emissions. Although mainstream car companies are making improvements in fuel economy and reducing emissions by incorporating hybrid technology or regenerative braking, by improving engine efficiency or by stripping weight the big firms are notably absent from the AXPs list of entrants.
Weve been talking to all of them and we would encourage them to come forward and take on these lesser-known competitors, Foley says. We want them to show the world what theyve got. None of the major car makers has said this is an impossible task. We are quite satisfied this is a goal we can achieve. Now its time for car buyers to pay attention.
After years of pumping up speed, power and body weight, car companies, spurred on by tax penalties, relentlessly rising fuel prices and the threat of new legislation, are vying to produce the leanest, meanest machines.
Models such as the Volkswagen Polo BlueMotion trumpet their mpg rather than their bhp. The Polo BlueMotion shares its status as the most frugal new car in the UK with the Seat Ibiza Ecomotive, which was launched just before Christmas and will be in showrooms in April. Both offer 74.3mpg in mixed motoring and emissions of 99g/km. CO2 Meanwhile, the petrol-electric Toyota Prius claims 65.7mpg and CO2 emissions of 104g/km, narrowly beating the Honda Civic Hybrids 61.4mpg and 109g/km.
Even high-end German manufacturers, including Porsche and BMW, are looking at hybrid models. Porsche plans to sell the Cayenne 4x4 hybrid from 2010 and BMW unveiled the X6 hybrid concept car in September.
The tiny, all-electric Reva G-Wiz offers even cheaper and greener motoring, claiming to emit the equivalent of 63g/km of CO2 if the car is ultimately charged from a conventional oil/gas power station. But it has a top speed of 50mph and a range of no more than 48 miles between lengthy recharges.
For a more effective electric car from a mainstream name, you may have to wait for the arrival of models such as the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car with a back-up petrol engine, scheduled to go into production in 2010.
In the meantime, among the more fuel-efficient cars on the market are the Toyota Aygo, Citroën C1 and Peugeot 107, all with the same petrol or diesel engines, emitting 109g/km and offering 51.4mpg or 53.3mpg, for petrol and diesel respectively.