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The Shell Eco-Marathon: On the Path to 3,587 MPG

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I love hearing about student green car competitions, because the designs—and the enthusiasm—are really infectious. That’s totally the case at the Shell Eco-Marathon unfolding in Houston. It brings together more than 100 high school and college teams with some of the strangest contraptions ever to hit the track. The key to winning super-high-mileage is to design tiny three- and four-wheeled single-seat streamliners. The cars are usually hugely uncomfortable to ride in, and take days to get up to speed, but boy do they get great fuel economy.

It ain't pretty, but the Laval University car went more than 3,000 miles on a gallon of gas. (Shell photo)Most of them aren’t very fast—it’s not a race—but they routinely attain insane mileage, like the Canadian Laval University car (I use the term loosely) that achieved 3,587 mpg, which was the best result ever in the Americas’ challenge but not quite the 8,914 achieved by a French team a decade ago. Some 141 teams took part this year, but only 131 made it through inspection. Here's a really cool time-lapse video that gives a hint at all the work that goes into events like this:


You don’t enter these competitions for the money—Laval came away with a $2,000 first prize, which was just a down payment on the big investment in cash and sweat equity that went into the team’s super-aerodynamic car.

Laval has won the prototype gasoline category three years in a row (2009 to 2011) but had setbacks last year when the entered car didn’t even qualify. This year the team roared back with the bullet-shaped CT 2.0.

Mater Dei High School's 10th Gen won the urban concept competition/gasoline category with a run of 849 mpg. (Shell photo) Despite sponsorship by an oil company, battery cars and hydrogen vehicles had categories of their own. The electric winner was from Mater Dei High School of Evansville, Indiana, with 8th Gen, which went more than 600 miles on a single kilowatt-hour of electricity. That same high-powered high school also came in first in the urban concept category, with 849 miles per gallon from the 10th Gen car, followed by Louisiana Tech University with a mere 335 (on diesel fuel).

The hydrogen winner was the Cicero-North Syracuse team from New York. Fuel-cell cars are essentially electric cars with little chemical factories instead of battery packs, so it’s achievement is measured as 26.6 miles on a kilowatt-hour.

The Navitas from Purdue University won $2,000 in the battery electric category. (Shell photo)I’ve long noted the presence of women in this one-time all men’s engineering student preserve, and the Shell Eco-Marathon is no exception. This year, in fact, there were two all-women teams, ShopGirls from Granite Falls HS in Washington (the only such team three years in a row) and this year Doves Under the HJood from Scholastica Academy in Louisiana. “We were excited to lear about the other all-girls team,” said Dansil Green of ShopGirls.

Special mention should go to the Wolves on Wheels team from St. Paul’s School of Covington, Minnesota. While it didn’t win, it deserves credit for chutzpah. For three years, the school has been building cars with movie themes, and the latest two pay tribute to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Back to the Future. Yes, it’s a silver Delorean lookalike. “The [flip-up gullwing] doors proved a challenge, said team captain Marcus Garner. “But there was no way we weren’t going to have them—they make the car!”

Women are a big part of these competitions. This is last-minute work on Nanook, from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. (Shell photo)And a hardship award should go to the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, which was forced by airline red tape to ship its car without an engine. Luckily, Schurr High School in Montebello, California offered both an engine and transportation around Houston to find spare parts. And an award for creativity is due to two teams, one from a high school, one form a college, that used bamboo as a structural material.

Such collaborations are what makes events like this. I’ve been to a number of federally sponsored EcoCar events, and I’ve seen a lot of beer-soaked camaraderie and tool-passing among the teams—most of which are struggling to finish their cars until the final gong sounds.

The Mitzli from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. (Shell photo)If you’re not handy with a wrench—or a hacksaw—you should stay out of competitions like this. The team from Saint Thomas Academy in Minnesota traveled 1,000 miles only to discover that its battery electric car was four inches too long. No problem, they just cut the tail off. “We should have measured it before we came!” said a team member. Yes, that would seem like a good idea.
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