100+ MPGe Competition Good Company for ZAP Alias
When ZAP first learned about the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize back in 2006, the company knew it already produced some good contenders for 100+ MPGe transportation with its line of niche-oriented electric vehicles, but was grappling with ways of bringing a freeway capable vehicle to market and still make it affordable.
Building production-ready cars is terrifically expensive by auto industry standards. Typically, automakers need to sell 20,000 vehicles or more to even begin thinking about breaking even on their initial investment. ZAP knew there was a market for electric cars, but believed they needed to be cost-effective for the average person to make a real impact. The market was still emerging, so what was needed was a vehicle that could cater to early adopters, be affordable on a limited production basis and achieve a new level of fuel efficiency.
People have become familiar with MPG as a way to gauge vehicle fuel efficiency, so if you can put EV efficiency into those terms it makes more sense. Selling electric vehicles since 1994, ZAP constantly crunched the numbers over the years based on the cost of gas compared to the price of electricity to see what an equivalent MPG would be. For example, in 2002 ZAP estimated that on a cost-basis alone, an electric bicycle can get the equivalent of over 1000 MPG. With any form of transportation it is not difficult to calculate the cost per mile, but electricity and gasoline rates can be different, depending on where they live. In 2006, an engineer at ZAP guestimated that ZAP’s city-speed cars and trucks could get about 150 MPG. It was difficult to be sure what the fuel economy of an electric vehicle was because no one rated electric vehicles in this way and the numbers for energy consumption based on electricity varied greatly.
With these fuel economy estimates in mind, ZAP explored entering a couple of different vehicles into the X PRIZE, from mainstream models to alternative. Rules and judging criteria were still being formed by X PRIZE, and it was eventually revealed that only freeway capable vehicles would be able to compete in the competition, so that narrowed its options. Also, like ZAP, it was decided by X PRIZE that only vehicles that were judged to be affordable and marketable in production runs of 10,000 units per year in the near-term would be allowed to enter the competition. With ZAP’s business model geared towards more practical, affordable electric vehicle solutions, introducing mainstream automobiles was intrinsically risky. In particular, the added cost of designing a vehicle for full automotive safety certification is fairly prohibitive for all but mainstream automakers.
ZAP eventually decided the Alias would be the perfect vehicle to enter in the X PRIZE because it could easily achieve the 100 MPGe minimum and the competition promised to be a high-profile way of promoting fuel-efficient cars. ZAP was among the first group of teams to submit its Letter of Intent application in the summer of 2007.
Two of the best things that should come out of the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize are: 1) The development of a standard for determining the MPGe of electric vehicles, which alone will inspire car-buyers to start looking at electric transportation as a serious alternative to gas; and 2) Highlighting the best 100 MPGe cars in such a way that government and the investment community can start working to support the entrepreneurial companies that design these vehicles.