PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- With the Big 3 automakers on life support, a multimillion-dollar contest to create fuel-efficient cars is not just a lark for inventors -- it could reveal the future of the industry.
More than 100 teams are vying to win the $10 million Progressive Automotive X Prize for environmentally friendly, production-ready vehicles that finish a long-distance stage race and get the equivalent of at least 100 miles per gallon.
The X Prize Foundation, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based nonprofit institute, is best known for hosting the Ansari X Prize, which led to the first manned private spaceflight in 2004. Besides the auto contest, it is also sponsoring prizes for genomics, health care and a moon landing.
An unlikely top prospect is a team of inner-city students from West Philadelphia. Relying on knowledge, experience and a small budget, they are set to take on big-name hopefuls like alternative car company Aptera and a group including rocker Neil Young.
Popular Mechanics ranked the West Philly Hybrid X Team -- one of only two high schools in the field -- in the Top 10 early contenders last year.
"Many people still see us as very serious competitors," team director Simon Hauger said.
Contest officials earlier this month announced the final field of 111 teams from 11 countries, more than double the number of entrants expected, said Cristin Lindsay, vice president for prize operations.
Organizers say the Auto X Prize is more relevant than ever considering the struggles of Ford Motor Co. and the $17.4 billion federal government bailout of General Motors and Chrysler.
The teams have entered a total of 136 cars in two categories, representing a variety of body types and 14 combinations of fuel sources. They run the gamut from Young's team's 1959 convertible Lincoln Continental to a futuristic, three-wheeled vehicle from Aptera.
The West Philly students are entering a pair of custom hybrid cars: a rather staid, four-door Ford Focus and a sexy Factory Five GTM Supercar sportster, which they are building from a kit.
They had a huge success with their last kit car, a sleek K-1 Attack sports coupe hybrid that went from 0 to 60 mph in four seconds -- but had enough fuel efficiency to win the Tour de Sol for "green" technology vehicles in 2005 and 2006.
They also won the race in 2002, with a Saturn that Hauger said got the equivalent of 181 mpg.
"Over the years, the progress that they made was just phenomenal. Their enthusiasm was just terrific," said Nancy Hazard, director of the Tour de Sol, which is now on hiatus.
The teens belong to the after-school EVX Club at the West Philadelphia Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering. Quintessential underdogs, they come from a financially and academically troubled urban school district where neighboring West Philadelphia High School has been labeled "persistently dangerous" by state education officials.
The team's expenses -- at least $70,000 so far in cars, parts and entrance fees alone -- are covered mostly by a state grant and supplemented by generous supporters, bake sales and other fundraisers. Students polish their writing and public speaking skills by penning letters and making presentations to potential donors.
"We all want to win this," said sophomore Azeem Hill, 15. "This is good for empowering young people."
Team membership ebbs and flows, but there are about 10 die-hard students and several adult advisers, including Hauger, a former math and science teacher at the academy. He started the program more than 10 years ago to show kids practical applications of the subjects.
Car innovation is also near and dear to his heart. He drives a biodiesel Volkswagen Jetta and, judging by the eye rolls of his students, can talk a blue streak about alternative vehicles. His goal with the team's converted Ford Focus is to show that the X Prize can be won with off-the-shelf technology. It uses a motorcycle engine and an electric motor.
"I'm thrilled to be a part of this international conversation around improving fuel economy," Hauger said.
The competition is expected to take place in several cities over a few months beginning in May 2010. The sites are expected to be announced this summer.
William Coughlin, president and chief executive of Ford subsidiary Ford Global Technologies, will be monitoring the contest from afar. He's particularly interested in the Focus built by the West Philly students, who visited his office in Michigan during their spring break this month.
"They're going to find challenges and I hope they overcome them. Maybe they'll be able to shed some light -- that's my fervent hope," Coughlin said. "We're happy to learn from any of the X Prize results."