$10m for a 100mpg car

At this week’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) there has been news of a hybrid truck, a hybrid Jeep, and even a hybrid sports car, but none of them comes close to 100mpg. Not yet.

The new Dodge Ram (introduced alongside 120 steer, which were marched through Detroit city center) was accompanied by the news that a hybrid version of the truck will be available in 2010. Chrysler’s VP Jim Press told NPR that this makes the truck very environmentally friendly:

If you look at the CO2 emissions of the fuel use, which vehicle uses more — a little car or a big truck? Big truck does. So we’re actually saving a lot more per mile driven than on a small car.

Of course, driving a Prius over the same distance will produce fewer emissions. But if you need a big truck, this definitely helps.

There’s also a plug-in hybrid sports car on display. For a mere $80,000 you can fetch yourself a limited edition “Karma” (really? Karma?) which is packed full of lithium-ion batteries to provide 50 miles of “emissions-free full-electric driving”. The car’s designer, Henrik Fischer, claims the Karma is “more environmentally friendly than the Toyota Prius”.

Fischer’s claims are based on the notion that plug-ins are “emissions free”, something that is only possible if your plug-in’s socket and upstream power supply is itself emissions-free. Most electricity is still generated by coal or gas-fired power stations, and these are decidedly not emissions-free.

I was pleased to see this point made in an engrossing piece in this month’s Wired Magazine. The article reveals details of some of the first entrants for the latest innovation challenge from the X Prize Foundation. The $10m Automotive X Prize will be awarded to the team that can win races with a 100mpg car. The rules haven’t yet been finalized, but they fall into three main areas:

  • the car must get at least 100 miles to the gallon
  • produce less than 200 grams of greenhouse gases per mile
  • mass production has to be feasible, with plans in place to produce at least 10,000 a year

Hidden in the detail is the observation that any non-gasoline fuel (including plugging into the electricity supply) will also have to be accounted for in equivalent emissions rates for that particular supply. Best hope they’re not racing in Kansas (where emissions generated from electricity average at 2lbs carbon per kWh).

This looks like a fascinating challenge. Wired explains that 43 teams are already working hard to claim the prize, which won’t be awarded until 2010.

Picture by Misha Gravenor of Wired.com.

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  1. Les Brinsfield - January 16, 2008

    brilliant. cash is king.
    amazing that congress’ latest efforts at upping mpg is first in 30+ years.
    an improvement of 1 mpg per year since 1950 and we would need notta drop of foreign oil
    surely at 10, i was not the only one that realized oil supply was finite.
    if we all could save a gallon of gas a day, that would put a crimp in opec until the 100 mpg car gets here. do the math!

  2. Chad - January 16, 2008


  3. Geoff - January 16, 2008

    Using green electricity in your car means it isn’t available for some other load, elsewhere. You have to look at the whole system (regional grid) to see where the incremental kW-hr will come from to supply a new, incremental demand for transportation energy. That won’t just vary regionally, but by time of day.
    Fortunately, most studies show that even if the power to run them comes from coal, plug-in hybrids emit less CO2 than conventional cars. The bigger question is whether the cost premium for a plug-in can be offset by fuel savings over a reasonable interval, net of electricity costs. Remember that every additional increment of fuel economy saves less fuel than the preceding one. A Prius-style hybrid captures the most valuable slice of fuel economy, going from 25 to 50 mpg. Going from 50 to 100 mpg saves only half as many gallons–and thus dollars–even before paying for power. Anyone paying $10,000 to turn a Prius into a plug-in is spends more than the car’s entire lifetime fuel consumption would cost, even at $4/gallon.

  4. Monty - January 16, 2008

    I can not believe I have to mention this on TerraPass, but …
    1. Electric motors are more efficient than gasoline engines. Admittedly, the batteries are the ‘problem’. However, even if you factor in the inefficiencies of batteries, and live in an area where all electricity is generated from coal, an electric vehicle will still easily surpass the carbon equivalent of 100mpg.
    2. We are going to have to phase out coal plants anyway to address the carbon emissions. So, while it is reasonable to lightly discount the claims of electric vehicles run in Pennsylvania today, it is a silly argument given that the coal plants are going to need to be replaced anyway.
    3. It is fairly well known that there is excess electricity capacity during the evening. If someone is charging their electric vehicle in the evening (which is likely when they would be charging it), an argument could be made that there is zero additional carbon emissions.
    I could go on, but I think no matter how you slice it, the future of passenger vehicles is electric.

  5. Steve - January 16, 2008

    Of course 100mpg is possible. Plug in Hybrids,
    or even electric cars–then you don’t use mpg,
    you use electricity, hopefully generated

  6. Joan - January 16, 2008

    what about the sports car by tesla motors,the roadster…also up there in price (i think betwen $80,000-$100,000). it runs a distance of approx 220 miles on a charge and fully recharges in 3.5 hours. max speed is 125mph and reaches 0-60mph in under 4 seconds.
    i believe nichola tesla designed the engine around the turn of the century, 19th to 20th century that is!!! some people believe he was murdered because of it. so why develop a sports car first instead of something more practical AND affordable?

    and check this out:

    Toshiba has developed a new fast-charging lithium-ion battery with an extended lifecycle that has significant potential for application in hybrid and full-electric vehicles.

    According to the company, the prototype of the battery can recharge 80% of its energy capacity in only one minute, approximately 60 times faster than the typical lithium-ion batteries in wide use today, and will lose only 1% of its capacity after 1,000 cycles of discharging and recharging.

    it is said that the auto manufacturers buy-up innovative patents and shelf them to keep them off the market…word of warning to the contestants…please don’t sell-out!


  7. Anon - January 16, 2008

    That Aptera in your picture is totally real and practical, and the 100-mile range, $27K pure-electric Aptera gets infinite mpg. It’s all about low drag and light weight. That’s how a small car can get 100 mile range with today’s batteries. Electric cars with wind, solar and nuclear power are the permanent carbon-free answer. Aptera’s coming out in a year.
    Check this out to learn more:

  8. Chad - January 16, 2008

    I do not count any car as practical until it can transport four people, two suitcases, and everyone’s personal belongings in reasonable comfort (ie, a standard family-sized sedan).
    People will not buy glorified two-seater golf carts en masse. Unfortunately, that’s what most of these vehicles are. Sure, if you have great roads, little inclement weather, live by yourself and have a modest little commute, such a vehicle will work. That leave 98% of people looking for something else.

  9. jerome - January 16, 2008

    Yes, electric cars are next future, not the best option but in our next step of development. However electric cars are not yet very environment friendly if you considerate the cost of production, transportation of such cars, specially the low efficient batteries. Environment pollution relation to this production seems to be equal to SUV or worser. I read a report of a technical approach to transform our 10-25 mpg cars to 100 pgm by increasing the combustion efficiency. THe technology is already available since years, but the big car hobby don’t use it. Ask the Senator of Caliornia how he transform his oldies with 5 mpg to 80 mpg through this modification.
    Of course we should change our lifestyle too and become more energy efficient: cycling is the most efficient way to go from one point to other and you get very fit by the time… a healthy life in a cleaner environment.

  10. Pete - January 16, 2008

    We should dig further into the plug-in issue… But let me just say this for now. I agree that electric vehicles show far greater promise of fuel-efficiency than gasoline-powered.

    However, the claim that the Karma would be more fuel-efficient than the Prius is hard for me to believe. The designers haven’t yet published the data, but it seems unlikely (even with the lower environmental cost of electricity) that a car boasting a top speed of 125mph and a 0-60 of 5.6 seconds is really that efficient. Watch this space.

  11. Pete - January 16, 2008

    And a quick comment on the Automotive X 100mpg prize. The car has to be able to be produced for the mass-market, with a plan in place for production of 10,000 in a year. I think this is why the Tesla doesn’t qualify, but correct me if you know better!

  12. Kelley - January 16, 2008

    The infrastructure required to get us off the oil junkie spiral downhill WILL cost money. No matter what, it will cost. The subsidies given to oil companies should be shifted wholesale to alternative energy R&D, and tax credits for greener citizens.

    The perceived “cheaper” cost of lifetime fuel consumption doesn’t include in it’s accounting the notion that oil can go to whatever $/BBL it damned well pleases, since we don’t REALLY control the price, a few power elite do in an alleged free market. Their objectives are to maintain their wealth, not to keep the world spinning for the worlds sake.

    More importantly, it doesn’t account for the environmental damage that’s been perpetrated at the expense of all by the few who want the convenience of petro-fuel based economies. Plus, the factor of having sold petroleum products for over 100 yrs to 3-4 generations, who have already paid for petro-fuel infrastructure in spades one way or another doesn’t exactly foster change for the society as a whole. Not many are aware of options to what has always been in their lifetime, which is why I read TerraPass in the first place. (TYVM Terrapass)

    Electric cars make sense in urban areas. They make sense for pilots on 1 hr standby at home, waiting to be called in for a flight on a moments notice, which means each and every one of them must live in homes proximal to an airport. Electric power won’t make sense for tractor trailers delivering large loads. Ride sharing won’t make sense for on call doctors. A hybrid hay bailer won’t make much sense to farmers who only use them 200 hrs per year. etc etc

    My point is this; we have to start somewhere. What we fail to start only denies the market share that Toyota is GLAD to have. (On Long Island NY there is currently a 9 month waiting list for the hybrid highlander, which gets about the same mileage as an econo car with a significant loss of muscle and a steep increase in price vs regular highlander). If you have seen the documentary “Who killed the electric car?”, there were people ready and willing to pay a serious premium to merely purchase the cars they had leased.

    So what if the electric plants aren’t solar yet? In time, we can make that happen.

    America, and all it’s had to offer this generation, wasn’t built by an immediate gratification mentality. That mentality has only managed to squander our heritage and resources. Some who built those roads and rails never got the opportunity in their lifetime to drive a car or ride a train. Should it stop us from our work? Hell no!

    Most of electric infrastructure is already in place, with little need to clearcut more acreage, or to shoulder a huge investment with a long payoff date. Individual consumers could shoulder the investment of adapter plugs, and power companies could gradually shift away from petro based power generation as R&D technology permits. In places like Kansas, wind power could offer more to farmer brown and the power companies alike.
    Personally, I prefer the notion of having a less centralized location for power generation, which potentially becomes a terrorist target. I imagine right of ways already being established in the center divide for a highway lined with windmills tied into existing lighting/phone poles and power lines. Nobody’s neighborhood has to be affected that wasn’t already affected by these type of utilities running through. The zoning is already there!

    These are just ideas. Implementing them costs money. Making mistakes costs money. Not paying attention to the economics costs money. I, too, would hate to see my tax dollars subsidizing useless things. However, how much does complete inaction cost? How much analysis before trying SOMETHING, even if its a modest pilot project? Just because there may be some bugs in a plan doesn’t mean we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let’s find creative solutions instead.

    Historically, ingenuity and progress have always lead America to prosperity. This is an opportunity. Let’s embrace it. Seeing the flaws in a plan is useful only when it is followed through with solutions.

  13. Anonymous - January 16, 2008

    Just must say this is interesting…I had a dream two nights ago about the El Segundo based company Space X and how they were able to create personal space craft just by being offered enough money. And how the same exact thing needed to happen in terms of environmental, affordable transportation. Awesome. Keeps me hopeful.

  14. Bill Barbot - January 16, 2008

    I was surprised to read about this contest in Wired, as it seems that Johnathan Goodwin practically has this one cracked already. According to an article in the November Fast Company (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/120/motorhead-messiah.html), he is using almost entirely GM parts to convert large vehicles (Hummers, SUVs, etc.) to biodiesel, with hydrogen-injection to reduce emissions, and some combination of electric for additional efficiency. In many cases, he has doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled their fuel efficiency, while at the same time increasing torque and horsepower. He has Neil Young’s Lincoln Continental in his queue for a 100MPG modification.

    I hope he wins – or someone like him. He “gets” Americans’ lust for big vehicles/power as well as their competing desire to reduce our reliance on foreign oil – a very pragmatic approach to greening up Detroit. The only trouble is that so far, Detroit isn’t paying much attention …

    I’d love it if we were all riding around in tiny, safe, ultra-fuel-efficient golf carts, but that just doesn’t seem to accord with American tastes in cars …

  15. Jim - January 16, 2008

    You know…we are going to have to build an efficient car that looks a little more “normal”. You know what I mean. Unfortunately, most folks look at that car above and think “weird”. I do not share this thought at all but we are talking about the average market profile here.
    Build an electic 4WD giant truck, build an Accord or Tauras-style electric car, build what the American consumer is used to and then it will sell.
    Thanks for the soapbox…
    Jim in Oracle, Arizona

  16. Geoff - January 16, 2008

    A seemingly minor but important point about off-peak electricity is that there’s a big difference between capacity and energy. The recent study by the Pacific Northwest National Lab showed that there’s enough spare power generation capacity to recharge the equivalent of about 70% of the cars on the road, if properly scheduled (i.e., using off-peak power) but that does not address the energy source needed to spin those idle turbines, and in the case of most idle overnight capacity right now, it would be natural gas or coal. So the person commenting above about evening electricity emitting zero greenhouse gases needs to take a closer look at the dispatch curve for his local grid.

  17. Matt - January 16, 2008

    Being in the solar and wind business, I should probably stick to being a big EV fan. However, consider the new VW Diesel: 70+ MPG, no hybrid gear, runs on bio fuels, goes like hell, surpases all Ca. emissions requirements.
    @ 70 MPG, and no highly un-green EV batteries to dispose of when they’re done (not to mention the high environmental impact of producing them to begin with), these cars seem to be ideal. Citroen, Renault and Peugeot already have 75 MPG+ vehicles that (unfortunately) stay in Europe.
    Unless an EV or hybrid can avoid the unreasonable true cost in environmental degradation and carbon footprint they create, why not go with ultra-efficient clean Diesel technology??? I can see using EV’s in inner-city applications, but for maintaining the suburban paradigm it just ain’t gonn’a be competitive. Unless something really ground breaking happens soon.

  18. skierpage - January 17, 2008

    Geoff wrote The bigger question is whether the cost premium for a plug-in can be offset by fuel savings over a reasonable interval, net of electricity costs.
    No, that’s a false somewhat irrelevant question and I’m sick and tired of people raising it. People spend money on all kinds of unnecessary automotive extras. Is the cost premium of a bitchin’ sound system, monster tires, or the $10,000 extra for the Lexus version of a Toyota “offset by fuel savings”?
    It’s nice that polluting less by improving gas mileage also saves money in running costs, but demanding that it has to pay for itself is foolish.
    All the lazy automotive journalists doing the math on less-polluting cars truly know the cost of some things and the value of nothing.

  19. Chad - January 18, 2008

    Skierpage: The number of people who are willing to pay $10000 to save $5000 gas in order to protect the environment is so small it is irrelevant. Until the first number decreases to where it is equal to or below the second, such cars will always be just a freaky niche.
    And btw, you could buy the inefficient car, take the $5000 in savings you just incurred, and offset ten cars lifetime worth of CO2 via Terrapass. A true environmentalist would not buy a hybrid car at this time, as the environmental bang for the buck is terrible.
    People buying Prius’s want to look good, not be good.

  20. Aaron A. - January 18, 2008

    Jim said:
    You know

  21. John - January 19, 2008

    I second Matt’s comments about VW diesels. I have a 2000 VW Gulf diesel with 120,000 miles which can match or exceed the Prius mileage listed in the February Consumers Report as the number 1 gas saver. VW isn’t even listed in the top 12. The January Popular Mechanics magazine reports a European test of a Prius vs VW Polo diesel. The VW won, getting 38% better mileage; 74.3 mpg vs 54 for the Prius. We can talk about future possibilities, but the VW is here now! Why are they being ignored? They are at leat a short term answer, and can operate on biodiesel.

  22. Patrick Leclerc - January 20, 2008

    In the short term, all it would take would be for current hybrids to come with a “plug in” option at the dealership and for more cars to be equipped with manual trannys and with a diesel option (sulfer levels have gone down significantly since the 1970s so catalytic converters can be used on such cars nowadays).
    Then again, ideally, everyone could buy EV conversion kits 😛