Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation has been thinking about applying his X Prize Contest model to other types of challenges. The first X Prize Challenge put private citizens into space for the first time, and Diamandis thinks the same model could motivate people to build better cars and sequence the human genome.
Personally, I don’t think the X Prize would work for building a better automobile. The kinds of motivations are different – getting your team to be the first private citizens in space is a pretty serious motivator even without the prospect of a pot of money at the end (which would likely help your recoup your costs, not make you a space tycoon). Building the most fuel efficient car is a bit more mundane. The kind of hackers and engineers this kind of task needs won’t earn the same kind of geek cred that putting a man in space would. At best you might make some buzz on CNN, and eventually have your technology licensed or bought outright if you didn’t manage to scrape together your own production company.
Despite my misgivings – I hope it succeeds on any level. I think our country is in desperate need of gaining independence from fossil fuels for all the various political and environmental reasons. I look forward to the day when a toaster size box with a cold fusion reactor provides all the power my home and vehicles will ever need for the next fifty years, but I don’t think that the X Prize Foundation can motivate private geeks to make it. And nuclear reactions, even cold ones, aren’t the kind of thing you can just fiddle with in your garage, so my hopes aren’t high. This kind of technology will likely be in the grips of some kind of educational or governmental bureaucracy. The best we can hope for is some kind of “space race” fervor or a sort of Cold War like race with China, something that unifies groups of smart people to come up with clever solutions for the great good of their sect/user group/nation.