August 17, 2007

Cornellians Compete to Create Most Efficient Consumer Car

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With the average U.S. car getting about 21 miles per gallon, the country might be gas-guzzling our way to a warmer and smoggier future. In an effort to revolutionize the way we think about our cars, the Automotive X Prize (AXP) Foundation is offering a multi-million dollar prize to the first team to design a 100 mile per gallon or fuel equivalent car and present a viable business plan to sell 10,000 of these cars.
Out of 31 teams to sign a letter of intent to compete, Cornell University is the only academic institution to have entered at this time. Other competitors include Tesla Motors, creators of the fully electric Tesla Roadster sports car and ZAP Motors, makers of the Smart Car. However, thus far no major name automakers have entered the X Prize competition. “I think there is some risk involved with the major auto companies entering the competition,” said Kyle Rasmussen, MBA ’08, co-team leader of the Cornell AXP Business Team. “Many of them [like Toyota] already have established fuel-efficient vehicles on the market [like the Prius], and what would consumers think if the Prius [or some variation there of] lost the race to a relatively unknown start-up or to a group of Ivy League students? Consumer dollars may go elsewhere.” The prize is intended to inspire a new way of thinking about environmentally-friendly automotive transportation. “This is a competition that is intended to give a breakthrough in how we look at passenger cars,” said Prof. Albert George, mechanical, aerospace and systems engineering. “I think it’s quite well conceived, and I think it will help shake people loose from not looking at things from square one.” The Automotive X Prize is the same organization behind the Ansari X Prize of 2004, which offered a $10 million prize for the first non-government funded team to launch a reusable manned spacecraft. The Ansari X Prize was modeled on the spirit of the Orteig Prize won by Charles Lindbergh for pioneering the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927. “I like the idea of a competition existing and I think things will come out of it which will be interesting,” George said. “The competition in general will stimulate a lot of thinking by a lot of people. I’m sure that even if the car that wins never gets anywhere near production or looks even vaguely like it will in production; I’m sure a lot of good ideas can be developed in this competition.” The Cornell AXP team was started in winter 2006 by Phillip Bell, MBA ’07, a Park Fellow in the Johnson School. “I was reading a magazine on the treadmill, and they had a paragraph, just a little blurb on the X Prize,” recalls Bell. “I was hooked right there; I just thought, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do!’” It did not take long for the team to expand and grow. Bell teamed up with George as well as Prof. John Callister, the Harvey Kinzelberg Director of Enterprise Engineering in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Not long after, they were joined by Terence Davidovits M.Eng ’07, Joseph Sullivan M.Eng ’07, Ke Wang M.Eng ’07 and Jonathan Wee M.Eng ’07. Currently, the Cornell AXP has about 45 members, consisting of both graduate and undergraduate students from different academic backgrounds. One of the many challenges of designing a car for this race involves making sure the vehicle is lightweight as well as safe. “The part I’m working on is reducing the weight of the chassis; using lightweight materials, like aluminum or other composite materials in a way that will make the car pass safety standards and be drivable in the United States, but still be incredibly lightweight,” said Joseph Sullivan, electrical sub-team leader of the Cornell AXP Team. “We’re looking at probably a 40-50 percent reduction of the overall weight of the vehicle from what Americans view as a probable weight of the vehicle.” The competition is a balancing act — not only does the vehicle have be fast while still passing safety and environmental standards, it also must attract consumers. “The team is going to have to pitch a business plan to the Automotive X Prize executive committee. If they don’t think we’re going to make any money, if they think we’re just science people there, if we’ve got too expensive a car or we don’t have the market fleshed out, you name it, they’ll kick us out of the competition,” Bell said. The Cornell AXP Team is receiving sponsorship from Lockheed Martin, General Electric, the Triad Foundation, First Manhattan and the Cornell College of Engineering. Popular Mechanics has also agreed to feature the team in their online blog. The Cornell AXP has received a great deal of support from faculty and students, but still has a lot work ahead before the final race for the X Prize, tentatively slated for 2009. “In the past [Cornell] has won 9 out of 20 Formula SAE competitions. So we stand a chance,” said Rasmussen. “You have to remember that there are going to be teams with assets and who have a lot of money to work with. So we’re in an uphill battle here. But if we can be the underdog and win, wouldn’t that be great?”