MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
Engineers from around the world are putting some very new cars through final tests her in the U.S. They're competing for an award from the X Prize Foundation, which offers millions of dollars to spur advances in technology. These cars are ultra fuel-efficient vehicles designed to get at least 100 miles a gallon.
Most of them are electric or hybrid two-seaters. But Sandy Hausman of member station WVTF reports on one unusual entry, a four-seater built in Lynchburg, Virginia that runs on old fashion gas.
SANDY HAUSMAN: Lynchburg is an old river town with a population of fewer than 75,000 people. It's not the kind of place you'd expect to produce a 21st-century car, but entrepreneur Oliver Kuttner thought it was perfect.
(Soundbite of machinery)
HAUSMAN: Warehouse space was cheap, so Kuttner, a retired race car driver, hired a team of winners from the world of racing and set up shop.
Twenty-five-year-old Brad Jaeger is his director of research and development.
Mr. BRAD JAEGER (Director of research and development, Edison2): With racing, it's all about pushing performance to the absolute limit. With the other automakers, they've become so stuck because the cars that they're producing next year rely on parts that were used this year and the year before.
HAUSMAN: But Lynchburg had plenty of good machine-tooling shops to make new, super-light parts for the car Kuttner wanted to build.
Mr. OLIVER KUTTNER (Founder, Edison2): Once you make every part light, and you end up with a light car, you need much less power, so you have a smaller engine. When you have a smaller engine you can have smaller brakes, et cetera, et cetera.
(Soundbite of automobiles)
HAUSMAN: The finished product weighs just over 700 pounds far less than a typical compact car. And unlike most other entries in the X Prize competition, it's not an electric or a hybrid. After crunching the numbers the team, called Edison2, decided batteries to run the car were not worth the extra weight.
So the very light car operates on a mix of ethanol and gasoline. It looks like the cockpit of a small jet, silver and black with wheels protruding about a foot from the body. Inside, says chief of design Ron Mathis, it's pretty basic.
Mr. RON MATHIS (Chief of design, Edison2): This car has no sound-proofing whatsoever inside it, so it's going to be noisy.
HAUSMAN: To improve aerodynamics, the car has no door handles or side view mirrors, relying instead on buttons and cameras. Light, sleek and low to the ground, it can go from zero to 60 in seven seconds.
Mr. MATHIS: It's so light that it just feels alive in your hands. It's fun.
HAUSMAN: But how could a car like this survive on the highway, alongside trucks and SUVs? Oliver Kuttner says the Very Light Car meets all U.S. safety requirements and incorporates many features of race cars.
Mr. KUTTNER: We've all seen the video footages of cars hitting walls at 160 miles an hour, partially falling apart, and then the guy getting out and saying, this was a bad day and scratching his head.
HAUSMAN: Kuttner says electric cars are not ideal because of their limited range and both electrics and hybrids are saddled with heavy, expensive batteries that can fail in five to seven years. Instead, he thinks super-light cars are the way to fuel efficiency.
At Automotive News, editor, Jason Stein says the industry is already moving in that direction.
Mr. JASON STEIN (Editor, Automotive News): We're seeing that the size of vehicles is obviously decreasing from what it was even five years ago.
HAUSMAN: But with Americans getting fatter, Stein doubts small, light cars will grab a big share of the market any time soon.
The Edison2 car must undergo another round of track and laboratory testing. If all goes well, Kuttner and his crew could collect $5 million in prize money. If not, they might still profit should automakers turn to lighter vehicles and find Edison2 holds the patents to technologies that could speed their time to the showroom.
For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman.
KELLY: And you can see pictures of this and all the other concept cars in npr.org.