Just as it awarded the Ansari X Prize in 2004 to aircraft designer Bert Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen for the first successful, reusable commercial spaceship, the X Prize Foundation is aiming to give at least $10 million to the first team that submits a genuine 100-mile-per-gallon automobile.

Since the creation of the Automotive X Prize was announced last year, the X Prize Foundation of Pasadena, Calif., has received letters of intent to compete from 36 teams and syndicates from the United States, Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland.

The competition for the $10 million-plus prize is not affiliated with any existing car company and is technology-neutral, which means that the judges aren't concerned about how it works, whether diesel, electric, hybrid, solar, hydrogen or fuel cell, or any combination, only that it does work and is viable for production.

Interestingly, among those teams intending to compete, not one entry has been received from a major automaker, although fledgling electric sports car company Tesla, of San Carlos, Calif. has entered. Tesla says its two-seater pure electric sports car already gets the equivalent of 135 miles per gallon. Also included is fiberglass sports car pioneer Malcolm Bricklin and his Visionary Vehicles company. And so far, only one university team, from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has signed up. The foundation says it has received more than 300 inquiries from groups around the world.

The rules for the competition state that the vehicles entered must not be so-called "concept cars," but rather cars that are ready to be mass-produced for sale to the public in quantities of at least 10,000 per year. The stated goal of the competition is to "inspire a new generation of viable, super-efficient vehicles that help break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change."

"We are thrilled with the wide variety of teams and technologies from around the world that have expressed an interest in joining the competition," Dr. Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, said in a statement. "We are confident that the Automotive X Prize will motivate and bring visibility to a range of non-traditional solutions from both traditional and non-traditional players. The time for incremental change is over. We need radical breakthroughs to stem the consumption of fossil fuels. An X Prize can help make this happen."

A team of automotive industry experts will judge each plan. Those teams that qualify will race their vehicles in a series of cross-country events that combine speed, distance, urban driving and overall performance. Vehicles that meet contest requirements will compete in two different categories, mainstream and alternative. Four-wheeled mainstream cars must carry four passengers. The alternative vehicles must carry two or more passengers with no minimum number of road wheels. Both categories will have to meet the same fuel economy and emissions requirements.

The competition will test entered vehicles in two long-distance stage races in 2009. The two races, consisting of a qualifying round and a final round for the $10 million prize, will challenge teams to race their vehicles in real-world driving conditions over different types of terrain, through communities large and small and through whatever weather conditions prevail at the time.

In order to win, vehicles must complete both races with the lowest overall time averaged over all scoring stages while still meeting the requirements for fuel economy and emissions.

The contest has the support of several government agencies including the Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, National Highway, Traffic and Safety Administration, Argonne National Laboratory, the Federal Highway Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Air Resources Board. Some of the non-governmental organizations supporting the competition include the National Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, the Apollo Alliance, the Consumer Federation of America, Global Green USA, Calstart and Greenpeace.

The actual starting date for the competition, the actual route for the cross-country competition, and other details of the event will be announced as soon as the foundation has put together the $10 million prize fund. The Automotive X Prize has already garnered supporting sponsorships from Adobe, Idealab, Big George Ventures, the Elbaz Foundation, Salesforce.com Foundation, Zag, and the Jack D. Hidary Foundation.

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