SALISBURY -- In a cluttered two-car garage a few miles from his home, Gregorio Belloso's answer to the nation's energy problems is taking shape.
Mounted on aluminum frames are the skeletal beginnings of two homemade cars that will sip gasoline instead of guzzle it: a four-seat model and a two-seater. Belloso is building them with technology he designed and patented, in hopes that they will win him $10 million.
The semiretired surgeon says it isn't the prospect of the money that inspires him to pursue the Progressive Automotive X Prize in a national competition designed to spur development of fuel- efficient cars. What he really wants is bragging rights.
"I'm very much excited about the possibilities," said Belloso, 73. "We're trying to do what's good for the Earth."
Belloso, who has tinkered with cars since his teenage years in the Philippines, is one of 64 contestants from 10 countries vying to create a car priced for the mass market that gets 100 miles per gallon of gasoline -- or the equivalent in alternative fuels.
"Our goal is to stimulate a wide range of new options, new technologies," said John Shore, a senior director of the Progressive Automotive X Prize, the nonprofit group organizing the contest.
The only other Maryland contestant so far is Lt. Cmdr. Jack Staub, a Navy pilot based at Patuxent River Naval Station. Staub's 11-member team is building a two-seat, diesel-electric vehicle that mates technology from the Honda Insight, a lightweight gas-electric car, with the Lupo 3L, a diesel-powered four-seater from Volkswagen that was marketed in Europe until 2005.
'Not just fairy tales'
Staub, 32, a Naval Academy graduate with a master's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland, has a long-standing passion for cars. His day job, flying Navy jets at Patuxent, is challenging, but like Belloso, he's attracted to the idea of helping to solve the nation's energy problems.
"My hope is to show these concepts aren't just fairy tales," he said.
Some are certainly creative. One team is using flywheels as a power source; another is using compressed air to boost acceleration.
The competition begins with a qualifying race next year, and the finals a year later. The race will include five legs of 30 to 200 miles, each run in a different city. Routes will include urban streets and rural highways, with heat, hills, rain, snow and terrain that represent real-world driving conditions. Last month, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg agreed to host the first qualifier in September 2009.
"You get a lot of people who say, it's about time for something like this," said Donald J. Foley, executive director of the Progressive X Prize.
As gasoline prices rise and the world's oil supply fails to keep pace with demand, the X Prize is just one of several prominent efforts to promote fuel-efficient cars.
"It's really the tip of the iceberg," said Dennis Assanis, director of the Automotive Research Center and a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan.
Federal fuel efficiency standards, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), were recently updated and will require automakers to produce cars and trucks that average 35 mpg by 2020, Assanis said.
Current CAFE standards require 27.5 mpg for cars and 22.5 mpg for trucks, vans and SUVs.
The tougher mileage standards have the world's automakers looking for new designs. The challenge is producing a car that's lighter -- to improve mileage -- but still has the size, power and stability to appeal to consumers.
"One of the questions you have to ask is, what do people want out of a car?" Assanis said.
To encourage marketable designs, contest organizers set up two classes of entries: a mainstream car that seats four and an alternative vehicle that seats two. Four-seaters must have a range of 200 miles without refueling or recharging, while two-seaters must have a 100-mile range.
Entries must meet federal highway safety standards and contestants must have a business plan for production of 10,000 cars a year, at prices similar to those for new cars.
The organizers say they hope to increase the prize money by attracting more corporate sponsors, but they now plan to award $7.5 million to the winner of the mainstream competition and $2.5 million to the alternative category winner, Shore said.
Prospective car-builders have two more months to enter. Like contestants on the American Idol talent show, competitors who do not win could benefit from a good showing.
"The value of the prize isn't the purse, it's the publicity," Shore said. "You don't really have to be a winner to be a winner."
The X Prize Foundation was founded to spur breakthroughs in science, technology and other disciplines by organizing contests with cash prizes funded by corporate sponsors. In 2004, aircraft designer Burt Rutan -- backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen -- won the first $10 million X Prize for building and flying the first private vehicle into space twice in two weeks.
Google is financing a $30 million Lunar X Prize for anyone who can send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters on the lunar surface, and beam video and data back to Earth. The $10 million Archon X Prize, financed by multimillionaire Stewart Blusson, will go to anyone who can sequence 100 genomes in 10 days at the relatively affordable cost of $10,000 per genome.
Progressive Insurance agreed to finance the $10 million automotive X Prize because officials see it as a good move for the business.
"Energy consumption obviously is a major concern these days, and I think a lot of consumers are interested in companies looking for solutions to these kinds of problems," said Glenn Renwick, Progressive's chief executive officer.
'Fun to compete'
The two Maryland contestants say they should be ready well before the September 2009 qualifying race.
"It'll be fun to compete," said Staub, who is creating his hybrid from the Honda Insight and a Lupo he bought in Europe. When the Lupo arrives this month, he plans to substitute its diesel engine for the Insight's gasoline engine, creating a hybrid that should function like the Insight, he said.
Staub is getting about 67 mpg in the Insight now in mixed city-highway driving, but modifications should increase fuel efficiency, he said. He's spent about $30,000 of his money and will use an additional $4,000 from friends and supporters.
He says he hopes to test-drive his model in August at the Speed Week races at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The annual summer races, sponsored by the Southern California Timing Association, attract hundreds of drivers competing to set speed records in various racing categories.
"If we do compete, I think we'll set some kind of record," Staub said.
Belloso has been trying to design a fuel-efficient car since 1997, working with his brother, Telesforo Belloso, out of Telesforo's garage.
"We hope to be on the road later this year," Belloso said.
Belloso's car will have a dual engine design he patented four years ago -- comprising a 24 horsepower Honda motor for cruising and a 39 horsepower Onan engine for acceleration. The Onan will shut down when its power isn't needed.
Belloso figures he's spent "six figures" since 1997 and will likely need at least $1 million to get the car on the road and develop a business model showing how the cars can be produced economically.
"I'm looking for investors who may want to join me," he said.