High school and college engineers can do a lot with a lawn trimmer engine, bicycle wheels and a few wires—like build prototype cars that get in the thousands of miles per gallon. Here we bring you the best images from this weekend’s Shell Eco-marathon Americas competition.
A Powerful Prototype
All weekend long, prototype cars built by students around the country and shipped down to Texas battled it out. They ran 10-lap races around the 0.6 course of city streets in downtown Houston, striving to be top dog in miles per gallon.
The cars in the prototype division, like this one from Loyola-Marymount University, didn’t have many of the luxuries of the normal cars driving by and wondering what was going on. But those normal cars also don’t run at more than 1,000 miles per gallon, as many racers achieved.
The winning team in the prototype category, from Universite Laval in Canada, achieved nearly 2,500 MPG. (See a full list of winners here.)
The last-minute repairs, friendly competition, racing out to the track to get in that last run that might just be the one—that’s all over. And the dancing of the “Electric Slide” in the awards banquet hall has begun.
It was an up-and-down day. Penn State’s hydrogen fuel cell, HFV, drove like a champ and achieved the equivalent of 1,803 miles per gallon. But they couldn’t quite claim the number one spot. “We kept going back and forth with Cicero” says team member John Bearer, referring to the fuel cell champion Cicero North-Syracuse High School. Bearer wasn’t too disappointed, though, as the competition is far from cutthroat: At the very end, Northern Arizona gave up its final spot in line to Cal Poly, whose crew yearned to take a last shot at a better mileage number.
These Shell Eco-marathon cars are aiming for ultra-high mileage, so to be frank, driver comfort takes the backseat. Or, rather, it would if these cars had a backseat.
Having a car come high up off the ground raises air resistance, so the prototypes are low and sleek. Blaine Castongia of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, whose transparent car in seen here, says suspension gets the ax, too: It’s just wasted energy.
As a result, Rose-Hulman drivers Bethany Brisco and Barbara Arrowsling get a rough ride. The steering controls are right by their hips, so moving right or left means swaying one’s hips out of the way to make room. The two women say it’s easy to see where they’re going despite the low angle, unless they’re sitting still.
Time is short. Only two windows of urban concept racing time remain, and though Louisiana Tech’s last run in its blue car jumped the score from 173 miles per gallon up to 251, they still lag behind leader Mater Dei High School of Evansville, Indiana. So it’s time to pull out all the stops.
In the “garage,” Tech crew members count down the time until they must be back out on the track. In the waning minutes, crew member Beau Downey tells me all they can do to try to close the gap on the MPG leaders is streamline how air flows around the car. First, he says, they’re trying to smooth out the car’s undertray. While the overall carbon fiber body cuts through the air nicely, he thinks the air coming under the car gets caught and causes drag.
Louisiana Tech has sheets of plastic they brought down in case they needed to redo the car’s tinted windows. But in these last few moments it’s time to forget about that and cut the sheets into shells that cover the wheel wells, with the idea that passing air won’t be able to get in there, either.
Missouri, too, is feeling the heat. As we mentioned in our first post yesterday, the Tigers had quite an ordeal just getting a working car to Houston. During test runs yesterday, however, a connection came loose after just five of the 1o laps. Back in the shop, they’ve found the faulty connection, and race to repair so they can hit the road this afternoon and get a score on the board before competition ends in the evening.
Given that they make up 40 of the 50 cars in the fields, the vehicles in the prototype category ruled the road course here Houston for much of yesterday. But as day one rolled on, the urban concept cars—which look a little less like futuristic bobsleds on wheels and little more like what you’d recognize as a car—cruised around the track.
The car above is Concept Zero, by the crew from the Polytechnic Institute of NYU. (They’d be DISCOVER’s home team, as we’re based in New York.) Team members Jonathan Sorocki and Michael Choi say that besides the challenge of trying to build their own car within the span of just months, they ran into another problem: They weren’t allowed to weld on campus.
As it turned out, that minus became a plus. With some funding from Time Warner and Nordan Composites, Sorocki and Choi’s team built Concept Zero from carbon fiber. With only one weld in the car, it weighs in at a slim 227 pounds, Sorocki says, and much of that weight comes from the swank rims they procured from Vespa Soho in Manhattan. Thus, despite the fact that Concept Zero isn’t much smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle, it putters around the track powered by a 1.1 horsepower engine.
Race day one is almost done here in Houston, and the college and high school engineers are starting to surmount the technical difficulties and put up extraordinary numbers with their cars.
When we last left Durand High School, the team’s ethanol-powered car had swiped another vehicle around turn one and wrecked. But the car got back on the road, and the team recorded two full runs, including one of 345 miles per gallon. Three of the cars in the fuel cell category scored more than the equivalent of 1,000 MPG. And the girls from Granite Falls High School got as high as 182 MPG in the pink-and-green diesel “Iron Maiden.”
Tomorrow: How you drive these crazy things, how you build a car when your college forbids welding, and the final tallies from Shell Eco-marathon Americas.
As we saw this morning, just taking a vehicle designed strictly with mileage in mind and getting it around a track 10 times in no easy task. Grand Rapids High School, who we covered this morning, saw their car “The World’s Fastest Indian” bottom out over a bump near the final turn and grind to a halt. As of this moment the team had gone through an emergency session in the garage—which is actually a huge room in the convention center littered with tools and frantic young engineers—and headed out to try it again.
The key, says coach Michael Werner of Granite Falls High School in Washington state, is to just get on the board. The two-seater diesel his boys’ team built managed to chauffeur Shell’s Marvin Odum on a tour of the track, but thereafter suffered some transmission problems. The girls’ team had their aptly-named “Iron Maiden” roadster on the way to a successful run this morning when it threw a chain. “I think we’re on Plan E, F, or maybe G,” Werner says.
Not so long ago, the Purdue University solar car team was competing in the American Solar Challenge, an endurance race spanning more than 1,000 miles. The Shell Eco-marathon here in Houston is a totally different animal, however, requiring just 10 short track laps but asking the utmost in fuel efficiency. That sent the Purdue team back to the shop.
Pulsar, the team’s prototype entry here, is a scaled-down version of the long-distance Spot II. “We don’t have the nice long curvature,” team member Joe Trefilek tells me about the body design. While the motor and body size are both reduced, Shell adds the requirement that the solar entrants produce more energy than they consume.
Pulsar’s broad top covered in solar panels make it stick out like a sore thumb in the prototype category, which is mostly populated by sleek and small gas-powered cars stripped down to the bare minimum to maximize mileage. But while Pulsar is slightly less concerned with aerodynamics, it’s more at the mercy of the weather.
Besides the slew of large universities, there’s also a contingent of plucky high school teams competing here at the Eco-marathon. Though for some the first morning has been a struggle.
Tiny Durand High School from Wisconsin boasts the only ethanol vehicle in the field. But it wasn’t the engine that kept them from completing the course. With another car on the right, Durand’s driver got too close to the inside curb on turn one and clipped it, then the other car, leaving both of them stuck.
For Durand coach Bill Rieger, it was a heartbreaker. “I want to cry right now,” he said, because the team was so close to putting results on the board. Once the car completes 10 laps, race officials make the official mileage measurements. But Durand’s #50 car completed only 7, and there are no pro-rated measurements. The 50 car is custom-built, so it won’t be an easy fix to get it ready for the later trial runs. “We need to find a bike shop and see if we can bend our spindles back,” Rieger says.
Hope isn’t lost: the students from Grand Rapids High School in Minnesota tell DISCOVER that despite the competition, the teams help each other out. Still, the high school students want badly to succeed, and especially out-do the college teams. Grand Rapids took 7th overall last year. This year started slower for them, as their morning session run made only a single lap. But they’re still hopeful, saying the new gasoline engine this year could achieve 700 miles per gallon.
Note: The initial post suggests that Durand was at fault in the accident, when in fact the car on the right in the above image, belonging to Northern Arizona University, saw a brake lock up that caused the two-car collision. It wasn’t our intention to besmirch the driving talents of Durand High. And Northern Arizona, in a show of true Eco-marathon sportsmanship, offered Durand’s crew cookies as a peace offering. In the end, both teams completed successful runs, with NAU posting 761 MPG.
And they’re off. This morning Shell’s Marvin Odum waved the ceremonial green flag, and the 50 vehicles that came down for the Shell Eco-Marathon Americas are getting ready to make their test runs around the oval track on the streets of downtown Houston. It’s the first time the event has come here, and Mayor Annise Parker says it belongs in a car city like hers. “We want to figure out a way to be Houston, but be better about it,” she says. “We’re still a car city, and we get excited for moving vehicles.”
It was a long road just getting here, in the literal and metaphorical sense. University of Missouri team member Jon Tylka says “It’s really a miracle we have a car.” Missouri’s car, seen here, is the only entry in the smaller of the two divisions, urban concept, to run on a hydrogen fuel cell, and it was a couple years in the making. Tylka says the team was formerly working on a solar car, but solar vehicle competitions have been receiving less funding.