THE PROGRESSIVE INSURANCE AUTOMOTIVE X PRIZE
aims to shift gears in 2010 and inspire a new generation of super- efficient cars, cars that will help break our addiction to foreign oil. Why the rush? Forty percent of the world’s annual oil output fuels the automotive industry, while 45 percent of CO2 emitted by automobiles globally into the earth’s atmosphere each year comes from the United States’ fleet of cars and light trucks; they zip through four trillion passenger miles each year. What’s more, roughly one quarter of all the fuel consumed in the history of the world has been used in the past 10 years.

“If getting 100 miles per gallon were easy, we’d already have done it,” says Bob Larsen, senior advisor, technical operations for the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize. Larsen knows that there are some hard-core drivers, called hypermilers, who already eke out 100 mpg with today’s cars. But most people wouldn’t -- and couldn’t -- drive that way. To win the X Prize competition, cars must have the range, performance, safety features, and infallibility today’s drivers expect. “Don’t underestimate the magnitude of the challenge,” Larsen says. “That a high-school team is willing to step up and give this a shot. … It’s a remarkable story.”

More than 100 entrants from 12 countries are investing staggering amounts of time and money in chasing this dream. A series of stage and track races in cities around the United States and culminating in Washington, D.C., along with dynamometer testing in a lab, will determine the winners. (Think of a dyna test as a bracing run on a treadmill while being wired to a battery of tests. The dyna test confirms each entry’s emissions and its mileage across a range of speeds.)

SO, HOW CAN THE KIDS
from West Philly possibly pull this off? They’re starting where many teams start: with a preexisting car body. (That makes meeting safety specs easier.) In fact, the EVX Team -- the X was added to the team name when it entered the X Prize race -- is starting with two bodies because it has entries in both divisions: mainstream (four-person cars) and alternative (two- or three-person commuter cars, with tandem seating allowed). A late-model Ford Focus, its engine hauled out, provides one body. It’s a nice car but nothing to stoke the young, hip, urban demographic that these West Philly kids want to engage. But their slick Factory Five Racing GTM kit car? Now that car has body.

What will propel these students across the finish line? While the EVX Team would dearly love to reinvent how we view and use resources, it’s not looking to reinvent the wheel. Like many teams are, it is using off-the-shelf technology. The Ford couples an Azure Dynamics electric motor with a Harley two-cylinder gas (or biobutanol) engine, while the GTM couples an electric motor with a Volkswagen TDI diesel engine from an old Jetta. Yes, these are small engines, but electric motors provide plenty of kick. Both cars employ lithium iron phosphate batteries that store roughly 50 miles worth of electric-only power. And both are plug-in hybrids. Charge them overnight, and forget that line at the pump.

Sounds simple? Don’t let that “off-the-shelf technology” part fool you. Yes, some teams are doing startlingly innovative stuff, but even teams using off-the-shelf parts run into snags as they persuade unrelated subsystems to cooperate or to fit into spaces not designed with them in mind.

Take that GTM. “There’s no wiggle room in the back,” Justin Carter explains. In other words, they can’t just bolt the drivetrain together and then drop it into place. “We’ll have to take the engine apart and piece it back together once it’s through the frame,” Carter says. “Not easy.”

What about that strategy to produce 10,000 cars each year by 2014? That’s where the kids from Philly really shine. Many on the EVX Team specialize in the marketing angle. Watch Carter, Kamara, and Anita Davidson display their poise and confidence at a Philly car show; they know how to work a crowd. Listen to Hill’s speech before Ford Motor Company’s head honchos. Tour Philadelphia’s old Navy Yard with Davidson to scout sites for a potential Team EVX factory.

The American dream is about stuff. A good job. A nice house. A stylin’ car. The EVX team members want to put their own twist on it, though. Job, house, car -- there’s nothing wrong with any of those. But with the Big Three on the skids, what about the intangibles? “We’ve dreamed what we want to do, and people with money have come through for us,” Hill says. “Now, we have a responsibility to be sure our dream comes true for ourselves and others too.” Responsibility -- now there’s a learn-by-doing, school-of-life thing. “Being in the X Prize has opened up new dreams for me. It inspires me to dream harder.”

Dream harder. Beat that, Big Three.