SDM Alum Eric Cahill to Lead $10M X Prize Competition

Eric Cahill

By Kathryn O’Neill
July 2, 2009

MIT System Design and Management (SDM) alumnus Eric C. Cahill has been named senior director of the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE, a $10 million competition to design and build a production-capable super-efficient car.

Sponsored by the nonprofit X PRIZE Foundation, the automotive competition follows in the tracks of the 2004 Ansari X PRIZE, which made headlines worldwide by awarding $10 million for the successful demonstration of privately funded, manned spaceflight.

"The grand challenge format, which the X PRIZE Foundation is leading—is ideally suited to precipitate advances along technology pathways that are fundamental to human advancement," said Cahill.

The X PRIZE Foundation addresses fundamental systems challenges in industries that have stagnated, often as a result of very high barriers to entry, Cahill said. "Large, established corporations excel at incremental advances but often squelch radical innovation," he said. The X PRIZE is designed to provide a new way for disruptive technologies to gain ground.

The automotive competition is already under way with more than 100 entrants, including plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, compressed natural gas vehicles, and vehicles that attempt to radically improve the efficiency of conventional fuels. Prizes will be awarded in September 2010 for the best low-emission, production-capable vehicles that exceed 100 mpg or energy equivalent.

Cahill’s interest in cleaner vehicles dates to his upbringing in Southern California. An avid runner and outdoorsman, he said he developed a love-hate relationship with cars because of the area’s decades-long battle with smog. As he pursued his education, he found himself drawn not only to engineering but to public policy—interests that ultimately drew him to SDM.

"I was really interested in issues at the intersection of engineering management, technology strategy, and environmental policy. SDM offered an integrated degree program with a systems emphasis to bridge these domains," he said.

Cahill started out studying for a master’s in city planning at MIT, but changed course after taking Product Design and Development and learning about SDM. "I realized SDM was a much better fit for my interests," he said.

Cahill went on to get master’s degrees in 2002 not only from SDM but from MIT’s Technology and Policy Program. During his SDM internship at General Motors, he assessed advanced vehicle technologies and alternative fuels, work that later culminated in a thesis examining the conditions required for such technologies to succeed in the marketplace.

His prediction: Disruptive innovation would most likely come from new entrants to the industry in the wake of steadily rising oil prices and increased emissions mandates from global governments.

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that Cahill now finds himself leading the path to the next disruptive technology.

"One of the big takeaways from my thesis research at MIT was how important the demand side of the equation is. Policy often resorts to supply side mandates," he said, noting as an example a federal mandate that quadrupled the supply of corn-based ethanol without considering the effects of such a move from a systems perspective. "The X PRIZE is designed to address both sides of equation," he said, building up excitement about automotive innovation through the attention-grabbing, high-stakes competition. "There’s a huge education and public awareness component to what we’re doing."