AROUND the world, scores of tinkerers and millionaires are busy in their garages, pushing hard against the laws of physics and the envelope of automotive engineering.
Their goal: a vehicle that balances ultra-high gas mileage, performance, and affordability.
Their mechanism: the $10 million Progressive Automotive X Prize competition.
"It's not the prize that's spurring a lot of them. It's a lot of money, but for a lot of them, it's an opportunity to raise awareness of their idea, and to promote their idea," said Carrie Fox, a spokesman for the X-Prize Foundation.
"The best part of throwing a prize out there is that you never know what's going to come back to you."
Announced in 2006 and sponsored by Progressive Insurance, the Automotive X Prize is an international contest with the aim of jump-starting a new generation of viable, super-fuel-efficient vehicles.
The independent competition is to see who can design, build, and bring to market vehicles that get a minimum of 100 miles per gallon.
In addition to the significant technological challenges, designers must create vehicles that people want to buy, can be mass-produced, and meet market needs for price, size, capability, safety, and performance.
The winning vehicle must win a cross-country race, run in stages, along the roads that most people drive daily.
Two vehicles will share the $10 million. A "mainstream" competition, with a $7.5 million prize, focuses on traditional four-seat sedans; an "alternative" race open to a variety of designs offers a $2.5 million prize.
The alternative competition seems to have sparked the imagination of auto enthusiasts, and has the closest tie to Toledo.
In June, Applied Technologies Inc., of Maumee, delivered the prototype of the ZAP Alias - a three-wheeled two-seater. ZAP, of Santa Rosa, Calif., says the highway-rated vehicle can exceed 100 miles per hour and travel more than 100 miles before needing a recharge.
Although it turned heads in Toledo at a June roll-out, it looks a bit mundane in the company of some of its X-Prize competitors.
For example, consider the AirShip: an electric-powered four-seater that glides along not on wheels but on spheres. Built by AirShip Technologies Group, of Oregon, it uses magnetic levitation similar to European and Japanese high-speed trains instead of a traditional suspension and drivetrain system.
It also uses a "drive-by-wire" computed-aided steering system akin to the flight control of modern jets.
Then there's the Aptera Typ-1, a three-wheeled electric two-seater that is to go on sale later this year in California.
Classified as a motorcycle, the ultra-aerodynamic Aptera (Greek for "wingless flight") is a plug-in hybrid that boasts fuel economy of up to 300 miles per gallon.
"I think the probability is very, very high that Aptera will walk away with the prize," said a confident Steve Fambro, Aptera's co-founder and chief executive officer. "We have the most efficient vehicle in the world."
Although electric drivetrains are popular among entrants, teams in the alternative race aren't focusing exclusively on that technology. Zero Pollution Motors, of France, will enter an automobile that uses compressed air to operate a 75-horsepower engine that will drive a small six-passenger car.
The first stage of the Automotive X Prize race is set for New York City, said Ms. Fox.
When it kicks off in 2009, qualifying entrants - those that meet engineering requirements and can also be built and sold - will begin their multicity, multistage race.
The race probably will pass through Ohio and Michigan on at least one leg, Ms. Fox said. "There are a number of cities in Ohio [and Michigan] that are interested. We'll probably announce those cities this fall," she said.
The foundation is in discussions with Indianapolis about holding a leg of the race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where entrants could display their top speeds.
"Getting these vehicles out on roads and testing them in a controlled environment will allow us to see if that 100 miles per gallon is a real number for these vehicles," Ms. Fox said.
One that might do well at the speedway is the all-electric Tesla Roadster, a production two-seat sports car that has a 220-mile range and goes from zero to 60 mph in under four seconds.
It is likely to be challenged by the Velozzi, a two-seat electric-hybrid sports car that claims a 200 mph top speed and needs just three seconds to go from zero to 60.
But in X-Prize race, speed isn't as important as going to market with a product and having someone with deep enough pockets to manufacture the vehicle, said Todd Pratt, vice president of Fuel Vapor Technologies, another competing team.
"I know the hardest part won't be the 100 mpg, it will be the manufacturing. This competition isn't worth three cents if cars don't make it to market," Mr. Pratt said.
His car, the two-seat, three-wheeled Al, reached 92 mpg with its former powertrain, but now uses an electric-gas hybrid powertrain to extend range and fuel efficiency, Mr. Pratt said.
"Our focus is in that wonderful balance between performance and mileage. People will accept electric drives and high-efficiency vehicles a lot quicker if there are no compromises," said Mr. Pratt, whose team is based in Maple Ridge, B.C.
"I tell people to remember that the costs of technology always come down. I remember that I paid $1,200 for my first [compact disc] player, and look at them now."
Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: