Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Automotive X Prize

On April 2, the X Prize Foundation announced the new Automotive X Prize http://auto.xprize.org/. Like the recently awarded Ansari X Prize for space flight, this prize will go to the first group to successfully demonstrate a car that gets 100mpg, or equivalent energy usage, and is an economically viable production model. The group has already been fielding inquiries from well-known and unknown automakers alike. The foundation was inspired by similar competitions in history, like the Orteig Prize. Charles Lindbergh won the Orteg in 1927 by being the first to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. Funds for the X prizes are supplied by a collection of forward thinking corporations and entrepreneurs.

Announcement of the new X prize came on the same day of the Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. the Environmental Protection Agency. The lawsuit included a number of states and organizations frustrated with the Bush Administrations lack of action on global warming. The court’s 5-4 ruling asserts that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority to regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases. This is in contrast not only the Bush Administration’s position, but to the stated position of the EPA as well. However the court has yet to rule on whether the Agency is in fact required to regulate emissions. Furthermore, a set of standards by which to regulate these emissions would also have to be agreed upon by Congress and the White House.

I’m struck by the contrast in these two announcements. Both reflect the growing concern in our culture over the environment, yet they each represent a very different approach, and pace of change. On the one hand we have the gears of bureaucratic democracy and judiciary slowly responding to public pressure, and on the other we have the enthusiasm of competition and the race to be first in something new.

The winner of the new Automotive X Prize is anybodies guess at this point. But another interesting contest is being played out here. The role of influencing change in our technology and even our culture for the betterment of our environment is in question. Historically, culture and especially market forces move much faster than legislation or justice. But in the end, it’s likely that both governments and the private sector will find some role to play. Maybe for once, the real winners will be consumers and the environment.