Over the past several decades, the promise of the "car of tomorrow" has remained unfulfilled, while the problems it was supposed to solve have only intensified. The average price of a gallon of gas is higher than at any time since the early 1980s. The Middle East seems more volatile than ever. And even climate skeptics are starting to admit that the carbon we're pumping into the atmosphere might have disastrous consequences. To these circumstances, automakers have responded with a fleet of cars that averages 21 miles per gallon, about four miles per gallon worse than the Model T.
Yet hope is coming faster than that hydrogen economy you've been hearing about. Several small companies are developing new engine technologies and advanced automotive designs that promise to deliver 100 miles from a single gallon of gas. The proposals run from the simple--reduce weight, improve aerodynamics--to the incredible (one company wants to borrow a few tricks from jet engines).
The race should heat up further when the X Prize Foundation--the group that kick-started the space-tourism industry with its $10-million competition to produce a reusable private spacecraft--announces in the next few months a competition for the first car to break 100 miles per gallon and sell a yet-to-be-decided number of units. The prize money hadn't been finalized at press time, but X Prize officials are discussing figures in the $25-million range as an appropriate incentive. They hope the prize will urge people to completely reconsider what a car should look like and how it should function. "We need a paradigm shift," says Mark Goodstein, the executive director for the automotive X Prize. "We need to change the way people think about automobiles." Here are three technologies that auto-industry insiders we consulted think could raise the bar for automotive fuel economy--and quite possibly secure the X Prize's huge purse.
By far the most obvious approach to achieving ultra-high mileage is to dramatically cut weight and wind resistance, the chief enemies of highway mileage. This is the gambit you see in student engineering competitions, in which teardrop-shaped microvehicles on bicycle wheels regularly achieve hundreds of miles to the gallon. But these vehicles are all expensive prototypes. The challenge is to make a light, highly aerodynamic vehicle that's reliable, crash-worthy and, most important, inexpensive to mass-produce.
Steve Fambro may have tinkered his way into the solution. His Aptera, which he designed in his garage in Carlsbad, California, is a three-wheeled, bullet-shaped two-seater that minimizes drag and weighs only 850 pounds (the Toyota Prius weighs 2,890 pounds). He cut bulk by using a carbon composite frame, a race-inspired solution that should help with crash absorption.
Fambro's company, Accelerated Composites, is drawing the attention of several venture capitalists, and he hopes to have the Aptera on the market in less than two years. "Everything I had been doing was with an eye toward manufacturability," he says. By using novel composite-construction techniques, including inexpensive molds and automated fabrication processes, Fambro says he can keep the cost per vehicle under $20,000. And when combined with a hybrid engine that burns diesel, the Aptera could break 300 mpg.