Turn on any news channel these days and you're bound to hear something about the dire situation many automotive companies are in. During these difficult times, these same companies are looking for new, innovative ways to make cars that are more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly. One auto company, Progressive, is offering $10 million in prizes for innovative automotive designs through the X Prize competition in summer 2010.

As one of the 22 teams entered so far to compete in the qualifying races, the Western X Prize team is trying to win $2.5 million with Viking 45, an electric hybrid car.

The guidelines for the prize require that each group not only construct a fully operational hybrid car, but also that they develop a theoretical business and marketing plan that outlines how the group plans to produce 10,000 cars per year within four years of the competition's finish.

Competing teams are divided into two classes, mainstream and alternative. Mainstream cars feature four seats, whereas the alternative class is made up of two-seat cars only. The Western X Prize team will be entering an automobile into the alternative class and if they qualify, they will have the opportunity to tour the United States and race the car at locations across the country.

Before the main events across the country in summer 2010 the group must qualify at the first contest in New York City in order to show the judges the merit of their team's proposal.

“You need to qualify and prove your technology is viable and achieves numbers close to what they're asking you to in final races,” said Team Leader Brent Wise. “[The qualifying races] are more to weed out the groups that are just there because they can be.”

However, qualifying for the event isn't as simple as just showing up with a working automobile. Before the car ever hits the track the business and marketing plan must be approved by X Prize judges.

Graduate student and Western X Prize Business Lead Jeff Marinelli is responsible for helping to draft a business plan that addresses concerns including the overall business strategy, product specifications, marketing tactics and estimated financial reports. Though the competition only simulates creating a mass marketed line of cars, Marinelli believes that the experience of competing in the X Prize will look appealing to future employers.

“The competition itself is a huge goal, just to place a certain way,” Marinelli said. “But the bigger benefit is the resume builder. A lot of people in school need that professional experience and when they go to a job, they can say ‘Hey, I worked on this project, I may not have a lot of professional experience, but look at all the stuff we did on this project.' It's a pretty big learning experience as well as a resume builder for a lot of people.”

Wise initially heard about the X Prize competition from the director of the Vehicle Research Institute (VRI), Eric Leonhardt, about three years ago. Wise said he sees the X Prize competition as an opportunity for team members to add experience to their resume and get involved in creating more environmentally friendly vehicles. At the same time, the X Prize team just loves designing cars.

“You could go up to anyone on the team and say, ‘Hey, we're going to build a car,' and there's really no more inspiration other than that,” said Wise. “The benefits of it being an international competition with a lot of high exposure and influence associated with it is just a bonus. The environmental impact is just icing on the cake.”

Team Vehicle Lead Jonathon Ide felt compelled for similar reasons to join the X Prize team. He chose the X Prize team instead of other VRI projects because of the opportunity to have an environmental impact.

“We're nerds,” Ide said. “We're car geeks and most of us that are in the VRI [that are on the X Prize team] are on this team instead of Formula or Baja, because we care about the environment as much as we care about cars and our cool toys. When the opportunity came to work on this, it was a no-brainer.”

Ide helped integrate a system of regenerative braking, one of the car's most energy efficient features. By attaching an electric generator to the modified three cylinder engine, the wheel shaft is able to turn and store energy while the engine is not in use. An engine in a normal car provides resistance when the acceleration is not applied, slowing the car down, but the Viking 45's engine will generate energy from this resistance and store it in the car's batteries.

“It's the same thing as coasting down in your car, it's just that you're not losing that energy, you're storing it for later,” Ide said.

Systems such as regenerative braking and gasoline-electric hybrid engines, are on the forefront of technology for major car manufacturers. Many of the teams that the Western X Prize team will face come 2010 will be representatives from major automotive corporations.

Sophia McCloy, the X Prize team marketing lead, said that these developments are essential to finding the right demographic to market the car toward.

“We're kind of looking at other companies' programs that are similar to ours and seeing how we can compare,” said McCloy. “Maybe the type of customers that buy those cars will want this type because it fits in the same category.”

Given the ever changing nature of the market, the target demographic can change from day to day, Ide said.

“We have to figure out how much the vehicle is and what sort of price range it fits into and then figure out how much it costs to produce that vehicle, not just with the cost of the car, but the tools as well,” Ide said. “That changes what price bracket [the car would be in] and that changes what options we have. We have to go through this a few times to really see what price range and demographic we're looking at.”

Wise hopes major auto industries will follow the stride of smaller, more experimental car manufacturers and begin producing more cost effective, fuel efficient cars. With the industry currently in danger, the time has come to change the way we think about vehicles, he said.

“I think everyone realizes we're trying to step away from fossil fuels as much as possible, especially given their impact economically, globally and environmentally,” Wise said. “If we can somehow make baby steps toward a cleaner environment in the future through hybrid technologies and eventually electric or fuel cell technologies, that's something our generation is going to be faced with in 15 to 20 years, so why not get started now?”