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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Think you've got the chops to design a super high-mileage car? You could win more than $10 million. It's the latest contest from the X-Prize Foundation. They unveiled draft rules today at the New York Auto Show. The goal is a car that gets 100 miles or more to the gallon.

BLOCK: You might remember the X-Prize from a private space venture a couple of years back. Spaceship 1 was the winner of that contest when it left the atmosphere twice in a week. Now the foundation is trying to shake up other areas of research. There's a contest for genomics, $10 million to the team that can map the DNA of 100 people in 10 days. And future X-Prize topics might include education and poverty. Peter Diamandis started the X-Prize Foundation. I asked him about this latest prize for the super-efficient car.

Mr. PETER DIAMANDIS (Founder, X-Prize Foundation): The Ford model T got 25 miles per gallon and a lot of cars today get, you know, less than 18, and that's just wrong. We've been driving the same old internal combustion engine cars for the last 80-100 years. And it's time for a breakthrough. We believe that a large multimillion dollar prize out there for a new generation of cars that can exceed a 100 miles per gallon equivalent can bring literally a new fleet of car designs to the market.

BLOCK: Is there a directorate though from the Automotive X-Prize to Detroit and to cars that will actually be available to consumers? Or is this really more of a novelty and a theoretical thing that will cause a whole lot of money to develop and may just become, you know, a footnote?

Mr. DIAMANDIS: Well, our objective is to make sure that we're not coming up with a new set of concept cars. We can go to an auto show and see a car that theoretically gets 100 miles per gallon or more, but you can't buy it. So the Automotive X-Prize rules specifically are here in design to drive a new generation of cars that are manufacturable, affordable and brought into the market in the near term.

BLOCK: There must be untold number of scientists who are working on this kind of stuff all the time. It is that you're feeling that if you dangled $10 million in front of them, that they may work a bit faster and figure it out faster?

Mr. DIAMANDIS: You know, here's the idea, especially in scientific community: people are stuck in the way they approach problems. You know, it's a called the stove pipe mentality. I'm fond of saying the day before something is truly a breakthrough, it's a crazy idea. If it wasn't a crazy idea the day before, then it isn't a breakthrough. And so how do we allow for breakthroughs, especially when it comes from government-funded research? And the government unfortunately tends to fund the same thing that it funded the day before.

And true breakthrough ideas sometimes can be embarrassing if they don't lead to positive results. So a prize basically goes out to the world and says, I don't care who you are, where you've gone to school, what you've done before. If you solve this problem, you win the money. That's the idea of a prize, is to attract maverick thinkers across disciplines, across nation states, to solve your problem.

BLOCK: Mr. Diamandis, where does your passion for these prizes - where did that come from?

Mr. DIAMANDIS: Hmm. I've always wanted to be an astronaut since a child. That was my dream and my passion. And you know, I went to medical school and got a few engineering degrees to become an astronaut and realized that my chances of being a NASA astronaut were less than my chances of being in NBA All-Star. I'm 5-5, so that's not an option at halt.

BLOCK: Hmm.

Mr. DIAMANDIS: The bottom line is I gave up on NASA making a possible for me to go into space. And I read about the Spirit of St. Louis, that Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in 1927 to win a prize. And it was incredible the more I read, that's 16 teams spent $400,000 to win this $25,000 Orteig Prize to fly between New York and Paris. I said what an efficient way to cause a breakthrough. And being this nine-year-old kid at heart who wanted to fly in the space, that was the amazing opportunity to create this space flight prize.

BLOCK: That kid, whom you remember, who wanted to be an astronaut, would you have been watching the lunar landings?

Mr. DIAMANDIS: You know, I was born in '61 and I was watching those Lunar Landings. And one of the things I think about is when an X-Prize is won, can we do it with enough visibility to stimulate that nine-year-old kid today, who's going to be dreaming about faster than light travel, or you know, breakthroughs in nanotechnology. I want to live in a world where people do take risk, where people are dreaming about breakthroughs and believe that every problem is solvable.

It may not be solvable for our level of intelligence or technology today, but it's solvable. And the key thing is in your mind believing it solvable. Once you believe it, anything is possible.

BLOCK: Well, Peter Diamandis, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. DIAMANDIS: My pleasure. Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Peter Diamandis is the founder of the X-Prize Foundation. The draft rules for the Automotive X-Prize are now open to public comment for 60 days.

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