German citizen wins American Auto XPrize of $5 million | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 16.09.2010
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German citizen wins American Auto XPrize of $5 million

Oliver Kuttner's 320 kilogram car gets 102 miles per gallon of fuel, or 43 kilometers per liter. He and the Edison2 team will be formally awarded the prize at a ceremony later today in Washington, D.C.

The Very Light Car on a test track

The car could forego carbon for a steel and aluminum body

On Thusrday, a retired German race car driver and his ultra-light gasoline-fueled Very Light Car won the Auto XPrize, a $5 million (3.8 million euros) award in the United States.

The prize, which is funded by an American auto insurance company, Progressive, was started as a way to inspire auto makers around the world to build a car that would get 100 miles per gallon (42 kilometers per liter), or its energy equivalent. The cars could be electric, traditional combustion, or hybrids.

After making his fortune in real estate, car sales and racing, Oliver Kuttner built his car in Lynchburg, Virginia – an old industrial city about three hours south of Washington, D.C. He hired around 100 mechanics, designers, drivers from his racing days and others and proposed that they create a whole new kind of car, using ultra-light parts.

The Very Light Car on a test track

The Very Light Car won the $5 million Auto XPrize

“If you start with very light parts, you will need a smaller engine, smaller brakes, and less energy to power the car,” he told Deutsche Welle.

Because batteries are so heavy, his team - known as Edison2 - decided not to power the car with electricity. Instead, they designed an engine that would run on a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. The finished product weighs less than 700 pounds, or about 320 kilograms.

To improve aerodynamics, chief designer Ron Mathis suggested using buttons instead of door handles and internal cameras rather than external mirrors. Light, sleek and low to the ground, the silver sedan looks like the cockpit of a small jet and can go from zero to 60 miles per hour (96 kph) in seven seconds.

“It's so light that it just feels alive in your hands," Mathis said "It's fun!”

A trend toward lighter cars

The car's body is made from carbon, but Kuttner insisted on a design that could also be built using less expensive materials - aluminum and steel. If an automaker were to build something similar, he says, it would be affordable and recyclable. What's more, it could be manufactured to run on almost any fuel.

Edison2's Very Light Car meets all American safety requirements, protecting passengers by incorporating many features of race cars.

Three Very Light Cars

The Very Light Car is safer than it looks

“We've all seen the video footage of cars hitting walls at 160 miles an hour, partially falling apart, and then the guy getting out and saying, “This was a bad day!” Kuttner noted, and also pointed out that a lighter car is easier to stop.

Auto experts say the industry is already moving toward lighter vehicles in an attempt to improve fuel efficiency

"We're seeing that the size of vehicles is obviously decreasing from what it was five years ago," said Jason Stein, the editor of Automotive News.

He added that electric vehicles and hybrids are still going to make up a small portion of the American car market.

"Probably in the range of five to ten percent at the most by 2020, and then electric vehicles will fill in another possibly three to five percent," he said. "If we look at the industry as a whole, and then the other 85 percent are still going to be your basic internal combustion engine-driven vehicles."

Very Light Car now eligible for American government grants

Kuttner also dismisses hybrids, since their batteries are expensive and must often be replaced after a few years.

Oliver Kuttner speaking to reporters

Kuttner said he wants to see the car hit the streets

Looking ahead, he predicts China will go with electric cars, creating huge demand for the materials needed to make batteries and driving up prices. That's yet another reason why Kuttner believes the auto industry should give serious consideration to making lighter cars.

Still, the German race car driver, who has lived in the United States for two decades, is confident the patents he holds for light-weight designs will prove profitable as automakers search for ways to improve fuel efficiency.

He also said that he plans on finding partners to help manufacture and distribute the car, which could also be accelerated now that he is eligible for a U.S. Department of Energy program that will help the Very Light Car be introduced into the American market.

Oliver Kuttner also believes that in the United States, electrics and hybrids will always be plagued with the problem of range, as many Americans commute long distances to reach their workplaces, or will want the option of taking the car on road trips.

“An electric car would be perfect for the post office. It goes on a short route every day and parks in the same garage at night. Do I want an electric car?” he asks.

“No, because I may have to go to Washington tomorrow, and I can't get from Lynchburg to Washington, D.C. in an electric car.”

Author: Sandy Hausman
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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