Tomorrow's Engineers Push Fuel Economy Limits in Shell Eco-marathon

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Last week I wrote a guest post on GM's Fast Lane blog on the future of transportation. The post examined some concept vehicles that GM has been testing that can communicate with each other enabling them to move down the road in synchrony, like a flock of birds or a school of fish might. This would not only improve safety but could also speed things up quite a bit while saving energy at the same time.

Over the weekend, I took another peek into the future as a visitor to Shell's Eco-marathon in Houston. Even if the slick little cars I saw quietly parting the sultry Houston air do not represent the shape of vehicles to come (though I suspect some will), I'm pretty sure I saw some of tomorrow's engineers and innovators in action in the paddock area, working feverishly to get their cars ready to compete. The students designed and built the cars entirely themselves, though they were allowed to work with mentors. The contest goal was to achieve the highest fuel economy.

There are two vehicle categories: prototype and urban concept and six eligible fuels: gasoline, diesel, ethanol, gas-to-liquid, battery electric, and hydrogen fuel cell.

The event goes back to 1939, when two shell engineers wagered over who could build the most fuel efficient car. The winner managed a respectable 49 mpg. This year's winners did quite a bit better.

Montreal's Université Laval’s Alérion Supermileage team took the top spot in a gasoline-powered car that achieved a fuel economy of 2,824 miles per gallon with their prototype vehicle. That would allow you to circle the globe at the equator on a little under 9 gallons, though I can't say it would be a particularly comfortable ride. As impressive as that sounds, it did not top the record set by the same team last year which was 3,587 mpg.

The urban concept category also saw a repeat by last year's champs, Mater Dei High School of Evansville, Indiana, who did manage to set a record in that category of 901 mpg.

All together some 126 teams participated from 5 countries. This was the Americas version of the event which also has counterparts in Europe and Asia. The 94 prototype vehicles consisted of 63 combustion type (including ethanol, diesel and GTL), and 31 electric (including fuel cell). There were also 32 urban concept vehicles.

Among the innovations were a 3D printed steering wheel with built-in controls; a car with vegan leather seats made out of dried kombucha (an exotic fermented tea); solar-assisted electronics; the use of ultra-lightweight carbon fiber body shells; and real-time instrumentation to help guide the ever-important driving strategy.

Many of these teams relied on a variety of hyper-miling techniques like turning off the engine and coasting or taking turns without slowing down. Never, ever hit the brakes unless you absolutely have to.

I couldn't help wondering which of the various factors: vehicle weight, aerodynamics, propulsion system and driving strategy would ultimately prove to be the most critical. It seems clear from the results that in order to get numbers like these, you pretty much have to be doing all of them right.

Spoke with the Mater Dei team before their prize-winning run. Their car won last year as a rookie. They brought it back with a few modifications to enable it to reach a higher top speed. Their numbers were actually lower than last year in trial runs. I asked them why they thought that was. They suggested that they might have been accelerating too fast.

Whatever it was they changed did the trick. Now it's back to the drawing board to try and beat this year's mark next year, when the event moves up to Detroit. An event like this one is bound to generate a lot of interest in the Motor City.