FuelVapor Technologies (© FuelVapor Technologies)Click to enlarge picture

The Alé from FuelVapor Technologies runs on fumes and goes 0-60 in under five seconds.

In 2009 carmakers from around the world will go head-to-head in a race to prove they can deliver a 100-mpg car. Big names and hopeful hacks alike will have to show that their vehicles are not only economical and green, but economically realistic and practical.

"Our competition is not about concept vehicles. Our competition is not about science experiments," says Don Foley, the senior director of the Automotive X PRIZE (AXP for short). The race is about proving to the world that ultra-efficient cars are not only possible, but safe, affordable, and desirable for mainstream Americans.

The AXP, with its impressive X PRIZE $10 million cash purse, is being put on by the X PRIZE Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that raises multimillion-dollar prizes for scientific and technological challenges. The creator of the foundation, Peter Diamandis, drew his inspiration from the $25,000 reward that lured the young Charles Lindbergh to risk his life flying from New York to Paris in 1927.

The first $10 million X PRIZE went to Mojave Aerospace Ventures in 2004 (an outfit led by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen), for flying their SpaceShipOne into sub-orbital space and back. Rutan's ship now hangs in the Smithsonian next to the Spirit of St. Louis.

The X-Racers
The list of X PRIZE contestants reads like a who's-who of the hopeful green car market: Aptera, Tesla, ZAP, Loremo, Phoenix Motorcars and Commuter Cars Corp. (maker of George Clooney's favorite, the Tango). A team of engineering students at Cornell University, with funding from Popular Mechanics magazine, has also entered the running. No major automakers have suggested they will join, but almost everyone involved in the AXP hopes that Detroit's big three and others will jump in.

Competitors will pick between two categories: "mainstream," for cars with four seats and (at least) four wheels, and "alternative," that will allow three wheels and two passengers. ZAP Motors plans to have one of each ready for 2009. Based in Santa Rosa, Calif., ZAP sells electric scooters, ATVs, and neighborhood vehicles.

Better known for its press releases than for its actual automobiles, ZAP's two forthcoming highway-ready electric cars will both be contenders for the X PRIZE. But winning is not ZAP's highest goal, and Chairman Gary Star is excited to see the green carmakers of the world brought together around the AXP. "Our goal is not necessarily to win the prize, but to bring cost-effective electric vehicles to the world."

Do you think a 100-mpg car is far-fetched or could this be the real deal?

Malcolm Bricklin, the CEO of Visionary Vehicles, will also be content whether he wins or not, but he still seems confident about his prospects. Bricklin built his career as an early importer of Japanese cars and the famously terrible Yugo. He also built a problematic sports car, the Bricklin SV-1, that tanked in the late '70s.

Bricklin is now planning to mass produce a plug-in hybrid luxury sedan by mid-2008, a mostly electric car with the amenities of a Mercedes S-Class that gets "in excess of 100 MPG." This is the car that Bricklin plans to enter in the X PRIZE race.

"It's going to be the same car we are going to build. So we fit into the X PRIZE pretty perfectly." But even if he doesn't win, Bricklin sees the event as a gathering of the fittest, and the cars that rise to the top he plans to sell through his own distribution network.

Everything but the Cupholders
Through its series of stage races in cities across America, the X PRIZE is trying to change the way the world makes cars — not by pushing new laws, but by enticing free-market players to step up to the plate.

For this reason, winning the AXP doesn't mean just getting the equivalent of 100 mpg and placing first, but also submitting a business strategy to show the car is not only production-capable (at least 10,000 per year), but that the public will actually want to buy it.

Because the X PRIZE is about cars that can really come to life, there will be no groomed racetracks, special fuels or stripped-down chassis. "We're very interested in making sure that each of the stages represents driving habits and standards that people actually go through every day. We want rough road conditions, we want hill climbs, we want winter weather, we want summer weather," Foley insists.

Cars entered into the mainstream category are required to have heat and air conditioning, proper mirrors, wipers and the like. "We stipulate in our rules everything but the cupholders. We even stipulate that they have to have a sound system," Foley explains.

The X PRIZE wants to rustle up some change in an industry that has been at a standstill for 30 years. A potential victory for consumers and the environment, it could also ensure the success of the winning team. "We will enjoy cashing that check, I'll tell you that," says Aptera founder Steve Fambro. Then again, Foley says, "Just as we've found through American Idol, the person who wins is not necessarily the winner. The marketplace determines that."

Jacob Gordon is a freelance writer, a blogger for TreeHugger.com, and producer of TreeHugger Radio. He can be reached at jacob@treehugger.com.