Great article in Slate about attempts to build cars that will claim the Progressive Automotive X Prize, and how these efforts benefit from a quirk of recent history. For most of the history of cars, automobile racing and everyday innovation were connected:
The track wasn't just a marketing tool; it was a proving ground, a place where engineers learned new tricks that filtered down to the American consumer. Well into the 1960s, when Ford challenged Ferrari in the European endurance race known as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, automakers lavished money on their racing teams, believing they'd earn it back in expertise and sales. The link between motor racing and the cars in our driveways turned into a mantra for the industry: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.
Through the 1980s and '90s, that connection eroded. The IndyCar and NASCAR circuits were flooded with sponsorship cash from tobacco and beer companies, which didn't care about automotive innovation. They just wanted the races to be entertaining…. It used to be that the goals of racing and consumer R&D were one and the same—to make better road cars. Now the automakers' consumer divisions are searching for the holy grail of fuel efficiency while the brilliant engineers in their racing divisions make tweaks to the latest gas-guzzling V8s. It's a tragic waste of human capital, as if Silicon Valley's elite programmers had spent the last two decades optimizing video-game code instead of creating search engines.
Let's leave aside the question of whether Silicon Valley's elite programmers really have or haven't been optimizing video-game code, and whether that was a good thing (better simulations, anyone?), and note that this situation has created an opportunity to 1) acquire strong design talent, and 2) apply it in constructive and interesting ways. The article talks about one company that's doing just that, Edison2:
Edison2 was founded by a 48-year-old German real estate developer named Oliver Kuttner. Ever since he was a kid, Kuttner dreamed of running his own car company, and when the major automakers slashed their racing budgets to save costs during the recession, laying off thousands of engineers and mechanics, he saw an opportunity. He hired half a dozen of the most talented castaways, including Ron Mathis, a Brit who had designed champion F1 cars for Audi, and Bobby Mouzayck, a journeyman mechanic on Corvette, Viper, and Audi race cars.
edison2 cars, via flickr
As their Flickr photostream shows, the cars look pretty insane. But it's a very different kind of utopianism driving (as it were) Edison2 than, say, the Aspen Institute's hypercar:
Until now, much of the thinking about the future of transportation has been done by people who find cars irritating. For them, fuel efficiency means more people walking around and riding bicycles. They're busy drawing the chalk lines of a post-car America: high-speed rail, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, congestion pricing, bicycle lanes, sentient herds of Urban Smart Vehicles…. The car people who are now entering this conversation—the true gearheads—aren't utopian city planners. They're pragmatists who know that you can't transcend the car without building a better car first. And history tells us that a better car often starts with a dopey desire to go ridiculously fast.
Actually, prizes have been another significant source of innovation in the history of technology, and are more popular these days in promoting targeted innovation in science and technology (I had an elegant piece on this in Signtific, but for whatever reason IFTF took that million-dollar investment offline months ago and has never seen fit to put it back online).