The 2008 Great New York State Fair got a dose of green this year. And, no, it wasn't the deep-fried pickles.
Somewhere between the giant Ferris wheel and the rooster-crowing contest was Cornell University's shot at a $10 million prize -- and what could be the car of the future.
Cornell junior Trent Lukaczyk, 20, was at the center of the display, fielding questions about the little 17-year-old car that he and the rest of the Cornell AXP team hope can travel 100 miles on a gallon of gas.
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"We just did it in three months, as college kids, put together a hybrid-electric vehicle," said the mechanical aerospace engineering major from Fairfax, Va. "You can charge it at home and get it ready for the next day; make your car more efficient for the next day. But if you really need to go somewhere far, like on a road trip, you'll be able to use gasoline to make that trip."
As Lukaczyk chatted with passersby in the "Center of Progress" building here, he showed the team's "mule car," or test vehicle, a 1991 red-and-white Geo Metro with 118,000 miles. A few months ago it was just a regular car -- that is, until the team tore out the back, moved the motor, replaced the suspension and added 15 lead-acid batteries.
It might not look like much, but there are big plans for this little car.
It's part of a competition for the 2010 Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize. And it's a fierce one, with more than 120 teams from 28 states and 17 countries competing for the chance to win not only millions in prize money but the chance to make a difference.
"We want to make sure that people know that people are trying to make these cars better," Lukaczyk said. "The last time cars became more efficient was around the last oil crisis. And you can argue whether or not there's an oil crisis now, but the higher gas prices are making people pay attention to it, and we're really trying to drive that point home, figuratively and literally."
Cornell is one of only two universities entered in the mainstream auto class of the competition. The university has about 70 team members, each divided into six teams that work on developing different aspects of the car's design and execution.
Not only do they have to build and race an aerodynamic, environmentally friendly four-seater car that gets at least 100 mpg, but teams also have to create a business plan and show that they could sell about 10,000 of the cars.
It's quite a laundry list but Lukaczyk believes it's doable. "Within the next couple years after the competition, we should, theoretically, be able to put it onto a production line, make it and sell it," he said.
But, first, they have to build it. The re-tooled Geo Metro is only step one. While it can run on both electric and gas power, it only gets 40 to 50 mpg, small change for the Cornell AXP team.
"We have a car in the shop right now," Lukaczyk said last week. "I was just working on it yesterday, tearing it apart; we're putting models together so that we can start modifying it and turning it into our second car. We're going to put a little more advanced technology on it, a better battery. We're going to be using a lithium ion battery, better motors, and all around just more solid design. It'll be a lot closer to the final car."