By SAQIB RAHIM of ClimateWire
The cars of the future have shown themselves, but it's not clear whether Americans will like them.
Yesterday, contest organizers crowned the winners of the first Progressive Automotive X Prize, a one-year race to design an ultra-efficient car that's "safe, affordable and desirable."
Among the final contestants were cars getting 80, 120, even 180 miles per gallon equivalent. They assumed strange shapes, some sprawling on the ground like stingrays, others compact as books. They ran on batteries, ethanol and gasoline. In the end, it was a gasoline engine that triumphed.
The Very Light Car, built by Virginia company Edison2, won the $5 million first prize with 100 mpg and the lowest carbon footprint of all contestants.
Most interesting of all, its gasoline engine, running on E85 ethanol, beat out dozens of electric and hybrid cars, vehicles currently thought to be among the most efficient available.
It's the latest splash in an ongoing tussle with the auto industry: Exactly what is technologically possible, and what are people willing to buy?
According to environmental and consumer groups, the answer is this: Current technology can go a long way, and people will pay more for high-mpg cars. "We're not talking rocket science here. We're talking smart engineering, good auto design," said David Friedman, who directs the Clean Vehicle Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
UCS is a member of the Go 60 MPG coalition, a group of environmentalists campaigning to make that the next federal target for fuel economy. Currently, the federal government's corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) target is 35 mpg by 2016. Agencies haven't set the standard for the next stage, which extends to 2025.
The coalition said Americans are on its side: It presented a poll in which two-thirds of respondents favored the 60 mpg target, even if it raised a car's price by $3,000. According to the coalition, that premium would be recouped in four years at current gas prices (E&ENews PM, Sept. 16).
Pound for pound, cars today are far more efficient than their ancestors. But car companies have generally used the fuel efficiency to make cars bigger, heavier and faster.
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