What the World Needs Now: The X Prize's Foam Car

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 24, 2010

Of all the great inventions I wish I'd thought of, the foam car isn't one of them. Given my determination to survive a five-mile-an-hour accident, it never occurred to me that the same stuff that goes into pool noodles would be good structural material for an automobile.
The Spira foam car: a featherweight. (Progressive Auto X Prize photo)But there's no holding back the ingenuity of the unbound human animal, and so a contender for the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize , the Spira4u team's car, features six inches of soft foam on all sides. It has "an estimated one billion tiny foam air bags for enhanced Safety." Yes, they capitalized Safety. I feel much safer now. But don't let Tom and Ray near this car. Look what they did to the poor Dodge Dart. Don't drive like these brothers.

There's $10 million at stake in the X Prize, which aims (in the mainstream category) to award a production-ready car that can achieve what they call 100 "mpge" (mileage equivalent, since a lot of them are EVs). It's been a fierce competition. What were once 100 teams has now been whittled down to a mere dozen with 15 cars. Only one mainstream entry, the Edison2 "Very Light Car," is still standing. Next week, the on-track finals take place at the Michigan International Speedway, and multiple winners will be announced in September.

Believe it or not, the foam car is among those finalists (though it was hanging by a thread, or piece of foam, at presstime). I was intrigued to read that the car floats (it's ready in the case of Hudson River water landings), and that its 30-pound foam top is easily removed "to have a SEXY convertible." And with foam, you get incredibly low weight as an added bonus! The team actually wants to produce the 302-pound Spira, which has a tiny 110-cc engine, in that "Detroit of the East," Thailand. There's a 250-cc power plant for the "sport" model. I'd like to be there for the crash testing.

You don't believe it floats? Here's the Spira taking its maiden voyage in the briny deep:

The Spira is just one of many interesting X Prize contenders still standing shakily erect in the field. Here are a few more. The highway will get a lot more colorful if some of these cars are on it:

X Tracer
Marry an egg and a motorcycle, and the battery-powered X Tracer is the result. Cute in an aerodynamic way, it has room for two passengers plus "weekend baggage." If it doesn't fit in the overhead, it won't fit in the X Tracer. As in a motorcycle, the passenger sits in the driver's "slipstream," naturally reducing drag by 50 percent. Unlike a motorcycle, it has auxiliary stabilizer wheels that automatically extend at lower speeds. The Swiss team claims excellent performance--zero to 100 mph in less than 20 seconds, and a top speed of 120 mph. Range on a compact, 200-pound battery pack is said to be 150 miles.

The X Tracer: Half car, half motorcycle. (Progressive Auto X Prize photo)Is X Tracer a car or a motorcycle? Legally, probably the latter--which would make it a lot easier to get licensed. It won't surprise me if these Swiss guys win their class--the X Tracer is slick looking.

Li-Ion Motors Wave II
From the woods of North Carolina comes this bullet-shaped three-wheeled contender that's a star in the wind tunnel. If I were making Blade Runner II, I'd ask to borrow it--but would Harrison Ford be able to jackknife himself into the driver's seat? Keeping it on the ground might be an issue. Luxury lovers needn't worry. Although the Wave II is kind of Spartan looking, it has air conditioning, power windows, GPS, even a heater.

Li-Ion's Wave II: It looks like a bullet, but maybe not faster than one. (Progressive Auto X Prize photo)"Li-Ion" refers to the Wave II's lithium-ion battery pack. It's a battery car, with 120 miles of range. Li-Ion claims that it can be expanded to 300 miles, but maybe you'd have to say goodbye to the air, power windows and GPS.

Aptera 2E
The Aptera 2E (and the Tango below) are the sleeper production cars in the competition. The Aptera has had a colorful career, and if the company hadn't run short of development funds it would be in showrooms by now. The X Prize version is "production intent," meaning it's close to one you might actually be able to buy. The two-seater 2E is definitely the weirdest-looking car ever to get within spitting distance of the auto market. Although its single wheel is in the back, the three-wheeled Aptera bears more than a little resemblance to the Wave II. There's a good reason both look like airplanes without wings--that's the most slippery shape, though getting used to it for a highway car may take some doing.

The Aptera 2E: almost ready for the market. (Aptera photo)I've never driven an Aptera, but my daughter and I did ride in an earlier generation, and found it remarkably conventional and easy to live with inside. Like most EVs, it has a 100-mile range. But this one also has a lightweight composite body that a sledgehammer failed to dent. Because it's close to production, it carries enough airbags, crumple zones and seat belts to get certified for the road. Vote it most likely to sell more than double digits.

Commuter Cars' Tango
The Tango and the X Tracer would have beautiful children. They're born of the same impulse--if most cars carry only their driver, why do they have to be so wide? Interestingly, you'd think that if anybody needed a passenger seat he could reach out and touch, it would be the sexiest man in the universe--George Clooney, who nonetheless was the first Tango owner (he's since sold it). Can you imaging Hugh Hefner driving one of these, and having to reach backwards to come into bodily contact with his Bunny of the Week?

The Tango: you oughta see it from the front. (Tango photo)There's more to the Tango than an incredibly thin oncoming profile, however. I ran into one at the Detroit Auto Show this year, and was told by a spokesman that it was "faster than the Tesla Roadster." I don't know about that, but at $108,000 it's very nearly as expensive as one. Cheaper models are envisioned, though only a few Tangos have been built--expensive ones that claim to be "the world's fastest urban car." Zero to 60 is claimed in four seconds. That kind of acceleration and 3,000 pound weight seriously compromises range, which is 40 to 60 miles.

Zap Alias
Like the Tango and Aptera, this isn't the first time around the block for the Zap Alias, or for Zap itself. The company was ahead of its time, but it has a somewhat spotty record in terms of fulfilling its claims or getting announced cars to market. Four years ago, Zap was touting the Lotus-designed ZAP-X, which was supposed to offer 350 miles per charge, 10-minute recharge times, an incredible 644 horsepower (from four-wheel motors) and a top speed of 155 mph. That car, despite the Lotus connection, was vaporware.

The Zap Alias on the test track. (Progressive Auto X Prize photo)CEO Steve Schneider said it was "a perfect fit for our plans," but later admitted the model was no longer in the portfolio. The Alias is much more down to earth than the ZAP-X, and is yet another composite-bodied three-wheeler. The Alias ($35,000 target price) comes with GPS, "solar glass," and Euro-racing leather seating. The doors flip up as in a Mercedes Gullwing (and its retro successor, the Mercedes SLS AMG). At least Zap is being realistic about the Alias: It projects 100 miles of range and 75 mph. Zero to 60 reportedly takes 7.8 seconds. The company is taking $1,000 deposits. You could put down $99 and get a Nissan Leaf.

I can't wait to see who wins this contest. Just a couple of months left before the long, strange trip is over, and some lucky souls (there are multiple winners) are paper millionaires.

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