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Volume 15, Issue 42 ~ October 18 - October 24, 2007

The Great Race

By 2011, You Could be Driving the Solution

a Bay Weekly Conversation with Donald Foley
and editor Sandra Olivetti Martin

Don Foley loves a race.

For more than half his life, his races were political. Across the country, Foley advised candidates and the national Democratic Party how to win big races at election time.

In his spare time, he cheered the races of the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Now the Washingtonian has signed on to organize the race of the century.

As the executive director of Automotive X PRIZE, Foley is raising millions of dollars to put the cars of the future on the road in this decade. In 2009 and 2010, a field of automobiles designed to break the energy barrier will cross America, racing from city to city. More than $10 million rewards the winner, but that’s peanuts compared to the size, scope and value of a victory that will break our gasoline addiction.

And convince us, once again, that what we dream we can do.

Before the Automotive X PRIZE is officially funded and launched, Foley broke the story to Bay Weekly editor Sandra Olivetti Martin.

Bay Weekly What are you driving at with the Automotive X PRIZE?

Don Foley A new generation of super-efficient vehicles.

We don’t believe the incremental pace we’ve set is sufficient to achieve the goal of stopping our addiction to oil. If we don’t take radical steps, our addiction is going to choke us.

We’re taking this radical step to inspire new vehicles to help break our addiction and stem the effects of climate change.

Bay Weekly Just what has to be done to win the Automotive X PRIZE?

Don Foley Two things.

First, develop a clean, production-capable vehicle exceeding 100 miles per gallon, or the fuel equivalent.

We’re not talking concept cars. We want the result to be real cars available for purchase. They’ve got to meet all the current standards set by the Highway Safety Administration and the EPA: crash standards, air bags, even a radio. We stipulate everything in the rules but cupholders. We want people to look at it and say, I can see my family in that car.

Bay Weekly What’s the second condition?

Don Foley Win a road race.

Road races have a long history. In 1909, cars raced from New York to Seattle, and the winner, driving a Model T, received a $3,500 prize.

To demonstrate the efficiency of new vehicles, our race will take place in stages. We want stages to replicate the kinds of driving conditions we all have: wet roads, hills, cold and hot weather, snow. Each stage will be highly visible, so consumers understand that the cars are not only efficient but also soon available for purchase.

We’re imagining each of the stages hosted by city or city pair. Seattle and Portland, 180 miles away, might host a leg. We might have a leg from New York to Boston or Chicago to Detroit.

Detroit is important because I think the race is sure to revive the automotive industry. These new vehicles will need to be built somewhere. The question is whether the skilled workers of the U.S. workforce will be the ones building them.

Bay Weekly When will they race?

Don Foley 2009 and early 2010. We’ll have a winner by 2011.

Bay Weekly Do you know who will be racing?

Don Foley So far, 40 teams from around world have signed up with a letter of intent. They represent five countries: The U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Germany.

Bay Weekly Any big automakers from America or elsewhere?

Don Foley Not so far.

Bay Weekly This prize could change the face of our world. Who ever imagined such a thing?

Don Foley Prizes have a long history of capturing people’s imagination and inspiring them to do what they otherwise would not have done.

X PRIZE Foundation founder and chairman Peter Diamandis, a space freak all his life, is fascinated by Charles Lindbergh. Rereading Lindbergh’s biography, Peter realized that his solo flight from New York to Paris was inspired by a prize.

In 1919, Raymond Orteig, who owned a hotel in New York City, put up a $25,000 prize for the first person to fly nonstop from Paris to New York or New York to Paris. Years later [in 1927], after a great deal of hard work and raising money from the people of St. Louis, Colonel Lindbergh made the attempt from New York and won the prize.

Charles Lindbergh, in turn, inspired the X PRIZE Foundation — which, by the way, is way bigger than this race.

Bay Weekly So the Automotive X PRIZE is unconventional, but it’s not unique?

Don Foley Peter Diamandis conceived the first X PRIZE to inspire private industry to go into space.

Peter announced that prize in St. Louis, with Lindbergh’s grandson Erik at his side. To win the prize, a manned spaceship had to fly to the edge of space — and do it again within two weeks. It wasn’t good enough to go up, come down and crash. The point was to inspire the private industry of space travel, and that’s going on.

The $10 million Ansari X PRIZE — named for its sponsor, an Iranian American family of technology entrepreneurs — was won in 2004 by Bert Rutan in an effort funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen.

The technique was purchased by Virgin Galactic, and is being developed for private space travel. Prize sponsor Anousheh Ansari space-traveled with them in 2006.

Bay Weekly Prizes have gotten bigger since Lindbergh’s time.

Don Foley $25,000 was a lot of money in 1927.

Nowadays, we set a threshold of $10 million, which is about equivalent to $25,000 then.

I sometimes think about road runners who go out and win medals to hang around their necks. The medals are not worth that much; it’s about more than the medal. But in all kinds of racing, competition helps to get people to the starting line together, forms common rules and provides an exciting finish for others to see.

The money is the exclamation point in the competition.

Bay Weekly How much will your prize be?

Don Foley For the Automotive X PRIZE, we don’t believe $10 million will make a difference. A lot more will have to be invested to win the prize, and we expect the prize to be higher. But the inspiration has to come from ideas and willingness to get out in the marketplace and compete.

We’re also working for additional city by city contributions to the prize purse.

Bay Weekly And there are still other X PRIZEs?

Don Foley We’re about prizes. Prizes are what we do.

A few weeks ago, our founder made a public commitment to fund $300 million worth of prizes over seven years.

Bay Weekly Your space-obsessed founder has that much money?

Don Foley As with most good ideas, the X PRIZE Fondation can’t stand alone. We have many other supporters. So the process the Foundation goes through is not only identifying what should be funded but also finding resources — individual, foundation and corporate — that can come together to get it done. Our supporters are people who have been very influential, like Google co-founder Larry Page and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Bay Weekly Are any X PRIZEs in competition now?

Don Foley Competition is underway to rapidly map the human genome. The Archon X PRIZE for Genomics promises $10 million to the first team to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days. The winning team has six months to take another million — if it can decode the genomes of 100 people chosen by the foundation, both people fighting diseases and celebrities, including Google’s Page, Microsoft’s Allen, physicist Stephen Hawking, talk-show host Larry King. Archon Minerals sponsors this prize.

Just a month ago, we announced the Google Lunar Landing X PRIZE, offering $30 million to put an unmanned rover on the moon.

A number of other ideas are being kicked around by innovators, inventers and big thinkers who believe some of our grandest challenges are not being met by public funding.

Bay Weekly So you say outstepping ourselves is a private job, not a public one?

Don Foley Government seems not to have the money or will to do certain innovations. If you’re looking for innovation, don’t ask the politicians.

Bay Weekly Yet government has made amazing achievements in very short time, in the Manhattan Project, for example, to develop the atomic bomb. Does government need a war to spur its achievements?

Don Foley In wartime, we have got to do it. Our race to the moon in the 1960s was a goal set by President Kennedy in response to the Russian’s successful space initiative.

Government has limited resources and sometimes focuses only on what needs to be accomplished. Both space flight and the Manhattan Project were clear government needs.

If government’s need for a 100-mile-per-gallon car were that clear, we’d be driving them.

Bay Weekly Have you ever done anything this exciting before?

Don Foley I come out of the political world. Helping politicians get elected and stay in office is not as dramatic.

But I’m also looking at the public-policy implications of this X PRIZE and how doing something so dramatic might have an equally dramatic effect on public policy and how policy-makers view cars.

Bay Weekly Is it going to happen?

Don Foley We can do it. It’s a challenge with an achieveable goal we think can be done in the very near term.

Bay Weekly When will you be driving an XCar?

Don Foley I expect to be driving one by 2011, absolutely.

Bay Weekly What color?

Don Foley Color never mattered to me.

Bay Weekly What fuel?

Don Foley We’re technology neutral. Raymond Orteig didn’t tell Colonel Lindbergh what kind of plane to fly or where to get fuel, and we’re not, either.

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