It wasn't all flashy new cars during the media days at the Detroit Auto Show last week. During our time in Cobo Hall, we sat down with Cristin Lindsay, senior director of the Progressive Auto X Prize, to talk about where the AXP is right now. For those keeping track, we are about half-way between the official kick-off at the New York Auto Show last year and the expected start of the stage races this fall. We know that the AXP is looking for more formal participation from the major automakers, but what about the faltering economy, the safety of entry vehicles and the timeline moving forward? Lindsay talked about all these things, but needed to step into the vagueness a bit when answering the question on what happens when.

I asked how the economic downturn is affecting the participating teams and the timeline for the rest of the AXP events. "That's a great question," she said, "and I think you're going to hear more from us about that in the coming months. There's no question that for our teams it is a challenging time to be raising money for building cars and we want to make sure we're listening to those concerns and making sure that our timeline is the best one. So, keep your ears out; we'll continue talking about how our events are going to come together, where they are going to take place, what the frequency is and you'll be hearing much more on that soon." My guess: the dates for those stage races will be pushed back a bit.

Listen to our talk below (10 min, 14 MB) and you'll find much more after the jump.

Even though the economy might force a rejiggering of the timeline, Lindsay said that there is no reason to question the competition's importance.

"We are a more relevant competition than we've ever been, because of the issues that are at hand," she said. "When we're looking at jobs in the auto industry, the fact that there are over 120 interested teams and more than 35 that have registered for the competition, equals a lot of work, a lot of creativity and a lot of innovation and a lot of potential jobs." It's not just about cars, she said, it's about innovation. "This big spotlight that we're going to be shining on this issue over the next two years is as relevant, if not more so, than ever."

Relevant, but also constantly evolving. Since releasing the preliminary rules during the 2007 New York Auto Show, the AXP has listened to a tremendous number of suggestions to make the competition safe and open to as many teams as possible. One change is that safety features needed to bring the car to market now don't need to be installed on the car during the event. The cars will need to be safe - to both the drivers and nearby observers - but the design just needs to show that you could, for example, put an airbag in this particular space. Some things are too costly for the smaller teams, Lindsay said, and the biggest automaker currently signed up to participate is Tata Motors.

As we wrote recently, the biggest change to the AXP is the addition of the demonstration category to encourage major automakers to enter vehicles.

"The purpose of the demonstration division, is to really highlight cars that will be available for market, that may not win in the competition because they have so much more built on in order to meet standards or in order to come to market that year that they're not making the same performance within the races," Lindsay said. "It's an outlet to showcase the innovation that will be hitting the market in the very short term."

Another change a bit is that the definition of mpge has been refined, but the AXP hasn't moved too far from the original idea of looking at the energy equivalent of the fuels/electricity/etc. that goes into the car (ignoring the upstream realities) and comparing vehicles on that basis. You can see the guidelines for the Progressive Automotive X Prize here (and download them in PDF). The next big announcement from the AXP should be more details about the online knowledge center for K-12 students, a site that is coming with help from the DOE. Stay tuned.

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