$1 BEEELION DOLLARS. I don't find myself agreeing with Republican representative Dan Lungren very often, but this strikes me as a great idea. He's sponsored legislation offering a $1 billion prize to the first American automaker able to create, market, and sell 60,000 cars that get 100 mpg. He explains, "[c]ompetition for a prestigious prize is far more likely to get results than government programs aimed at anticipating and funding 'winners.' Although occasionally effective, federal subsidies are paid before an industry proves it can achieve what it set out to do, and all too often such subsidies are given to the politically influential, not the meritorious. But prize money is paid out only when the goal is achieved."
Quite right. I'd quibble with leaving this to American automakers -- if the intent is to popularize the car rather than subsidize politically influential corporations, other companies should get to play. Maybe the prize can be limited to the first company that develops, builds, and sells the automobiles in America (the Japanese makers, after all, are opening tons of domestic production plants). Nevertheless, it's a good concept, and the sort of outside-the-box thinking that could generate some interesting, unexpected results.
Update As Kevin Drum notes, the prize money is a bit on the low side for this sort of endeavor.