I was never much of a car guy growing up: the Lamborghini poster came down off my wall when I was about ten years old, and no other car art took its place. When my high school friends would daydream about the car they'd buy if they won the lottery, I was likely to tell them I'd spend the same amount of money and buy 10 Geo Metro hatchbacks, so that I could swarm down the highway with a pack of my friends. As luck would have it, I moved away from Houston--where having a car is basically a necessity--just a month before I turned 16 and got a drivers license, and I spent most of the rest of my life in cities like Boston and Washington, DC, where owning a car was as much of a hindrance as anything else.
When I joined the X PRIZE Foundation in 2005 to work on our space prizes and heard about what would eventually become the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE, I figured that my eventual first-ever car purchase would be of one of the winners of that competition. But that plan went out the window when my wife and I moved to Los Angeles in late 2008, and it became time for me to graduate from a subway car to a real car. As I started to look into my first auto purchase, I was guided by two main factors: 1) having never owned a car, I was particularly unenthusiastic about paying for gas on an regular basis or maintenance essentially ever, and 2) the price of gas in Los Angeles was hovering right around four dollars a gallon. Combining those three factors with my affordable price range, my choice was pretty much between two cars: the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid.
Now, luckily for me, I found those cars attractive and reliable enough, and was able to pick one up without having to sit on a waiting list; but still, I was disappointed to have such a small selection. It doesn't help matters that my high tech hybrid, pitched to us by the salesman as "more advanced than the space shuttle" (he probably wasn't expecting the fact that my wife works at NASA), only just barely gets better mileage than those Geo Metros I'd been talking about a decade and a half earlier, or that I now often lose my car in a sea of identical Priuses every time I park at the grocery store. Fast forward two years later, and as my wife and I start to think about replacing her car, the situation isn't too much better. Sure, I'd love a Tesla Roadster--but even if I could afford one, I'd be out of luck, because my house doesn’t have a garage, a driveway, or a fixed parking spot. It doesn't seem quite right that I'd have to move if I wanted to be able to plug in my electric car at night--I'd much rather have some super-efficient gasoline powered car, instead.
So, with an eye on that next car purchase, I've been following the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE a lot more closely than I might have otherwise--I'm not just supporting my colleagues and the innovation community, I'm acting in self interest. It's been a lot more fun this way--and really encouraging. A 0.179 second differential in the final on-track event for the Alternative Side-by-Side class probably would have been exciting and dramatic no matter what, but it's so much cooler when I'm actually thinking "hey, I would buy one of those cars. No, scratch that--there's a good chance I actually will buy one of those very cars!" And following along with the story of those fabulous students from West Philly High? Probably pretty inspiring no matter what. But when I'm thinking "damn, I wish I could buy a car that looked that good and got that mileage?" Even more so.
I like to think that I'm pretty normal in that when I go out and make a purchase that sets me back tens of thousands of dollars, I like to have a little bit of choice. A binary decision between "a kind of efficient car" or "anything else" as I did in 2008, was better than what I might have had a few years earlier, but not by much. Thanks to the amazing teams that have competed in this competition--and of course, the hard working staff and the sponsors, donors, and supporters who made it possible--I'm one step closer to having a real choice to make, and that's a good thing.
So congratulations to all of our teams, and please, do me a favor: get those cars on the market, and quick!