DETROIT—The women are behind the wheel here at the Shell Eco Marathon Americas. To understand why that is, you have to understand the nature of the contest—to get the best possible fuel economy out of a university or high school-built car on a makeshift near-mile-long track carved out of the roads around the Motor City’s Cobo Center. A lot of cars were seeing near-400 mpg, but the record--set by a French team in 2010--is 11,000 mpg.
Zoie Hambry was behind the wheel of 309, a battery electric entered by Central High School in Evansville, Indiana (which also produced the powerhouse Mater Dei high school team). Hambry admits that women are often chosen as drivers because they’re generally lighter—and every ounce of weight counts in this competition—but she says that they also bring in a lot of analytical smarts. Winning drivers here know when to go for “the burn”—basically, starting the engine and accelerating—and when to turn the motor off and coast on momentum. Here's Hambry on video:
“I felt really good out there,” Hambry said after the first run of the day. “I was kind of nervous, but the car ran smoothly, despite the track being kind of bumpy.” Not just bumpy but hilly, an obstacle that matters when your engine is less than a tenth of a liter, and puts out fewer than 10 horsepower.
There are two basic categories of car, Prototypes, which are stripped down to a basic aerodynamic pod, and UrbanConcept, which simulates a real car, with lights, wipers, even a luggage compartment. Prototypes are much easier to build, so there’s 90 of those and just 28 UrbanConcepts.
Some of the cars were kind of crude, with slapped together fiberglass or plastic bodies; others are hugely sophisticated, like the carbon fiber-unibodied, CNG and diesel creations from Louisiana Tech. Seriously, the Tech cars were so advanced—even the paint was perfect—the guys should start a car company. “We spent a lot of time making it pretty,” said student Evan McDougall.
Whimsy prevails, too—New Castle Career Center brought a diesel Volkswagen Microbus replica, complete with two surfboards on the roof, and a hula girl on the dash. Sure, the surfboards kill the aerodynamics, but what the hell!
Cobo is where the North American International Auto Show is held every year, and the streets are where Henry Ford tested his first car, the Quadricycle, in 1896. So there’s a lot of history here. The Eco Marathon was in Houston for three years, but then moved to Detroit—and proximity to the Big Three who could hire the 1,000 or so budding engineers swarming the city streets.
Shell is, of course, an oil company that sells gasoline to a willing world, but these days it has a even bigger stake in natural gas, and it’s actively campaigning to increase awareness of our changing world, which is likely to house nine billion people in 2050, 75 percent of them living in dense megacities. And in Detroit the company not only demonstrated its own high-efficiency Urban Concept car on the track, it also announced plans to showcase a new 83-mpg car by next November.
Detroit was picked for a reason. “It’s the birthplace of mobility and it’s a city in rebirth,” said Pam Rosen, general manager of the event. “Our future engineers are driving on a track that includes Woodward Avenue, where the second Ford Model T plant was located. We want the media and the stakeholders to see what city cars are like—not through a set of statistics, but in the real world, on real streets.”
Picture a pizza box nested in a tableau that includes greasy tools, a laptop or two and a pile of sleeping undergraduates. That’s the still-life takeaway at Cobo Hall after students pulled all-nighters getting their cars ready for the contest, which generally arrive half-finished at best. Some of the drivers have never been behind the wheel, and some of the cars have never actually been driven. It’s a trial by fire—the cars have to complete seven laps, a total of 6.2 miles, at a minimum speed of 15 mph to qualify.
This is the Americas, so in addition to lots and lots of U.S. citizens, there were teams from Brazil, Canada, Guatemala and Mexico—112 in all. The defending champions were the Université Laval from Canada. I stopped by Montreal’s Ecole de Technologie Superieure, who were running a little car with a one horsepower Briggs & Stratton motor, weighing only 100 pounds—with the driver. I asked pilot Roxanne Beauchamp why they picked her. “I’m the only woman in the club!” she said cheerfully.
Defending champs Laval weren’t having as easy a time this year. Their gasoline prototype car wasn’t starting easily in the cold, and the driver was a bit anxious. I’d be too if I was entombed lying down in a pod with no seat to save weight. The team had improvised; a wrap of tin foil was keeping the Briggs & Stratton motor warm.
I got to ride a couple of laps in Shell’s own Urban Concept car, which was built in Taiwan to maximize fuel economy. It’s a snug little two-seater thing, carbon fiber like many of the Marathon entrants, with upswept gullwing doors, a 125-cc Yamaha scooter motor, and 500 mph possible. It doesn’t have much in the way of suspension, and so crashed over the rough stuff. Here's Shell's Ian Moore on (and in) the Urban Concept car:
Since the Shell car is a Cadillac compared to what the kids were driving—it had seats, after all—I can imagine what they went through, strapped into their pods in full racing suits and helmets. But they always emerged smiling, even the guy whose car flipped on its side when he took a turn too fast.
I finished the day driving VW’s e-Golf on the roof of Cobo Hall, with Detroit spread out in front of me. A great ride, and my guess is that a number of the student engineers I encountered at the Eco Marathon will be designing its successor. Attracting hiring interest from the Big Three was one reason behind the move to Detroit, Rosen reiterated. I ran into Dudon Wei, whose day job now is working for Shell as a natural gas drilling engineer.
Last year, Wei was in Houston as a student at Canada’s University of Waterloo, competing in the Eco Marathon. “Our motor controller didn’t work, so we were disqualified, but they let us run the course anyway,” Wei told me. “We achieved close to 300 kilometers a liter, and learned a lot.” I’m sure they did.
Oh, and if you were wondering who won the set the mileage record this year, it as the University of Toronto. With driver Kristine Confalone at the helm, the school narrowly edged out favorites (and fellow countrymen) Laval, survived four failed runs and one crash, and managed in their last run to get in an amazing 3,421 miles per gallon. “We were one of the last cars on the track,” Confalone said. ““We were really lucky to be able to go again right after and get that last one in.”
Here's some video from the finish line: