Engineering Efficiency, Getting Hundreds of Miles per Gallon

Students compete at the annual Shell Eco-Marathon.

Fuel economy is still a big deal, even with lower oil prices. While auto manufacturers spend billions to get a few more mpg, engineering students are seeking order of magnitude improvements over modern automobiles. They are competing right now with their ultra-efficient creations at the Shell Eco-Marathon this weekend in Detroit.Shell Eco-marathon Americas Day Two

Those sort of efficiency gains come at a price, with the most notable concessions being speed and comfort. But if you’ve got flexibility with your schedule and your joints, it is worth it. To be fair, there is a portion of the competition that is aimed at addressing creature comforts and practicality, but that certainly hasn’t stifled innovation.

The two main divisions of the eco-challenge are the Prototype class and the Urban Concept class. The first puts all factors of comfort and practicality behind efficiency. The second brings some livability to the ultra-efficient concept.

Vehicles are further divided by power source. They may be powered by combustion, with fuels such as gas, diesel, bio-fuels, etc., or electricity, courtesy of battery or fuel cell sources. This range of options helps promote innovative thinking by not overly constricting design parameters.

The competition has a variety of categories teams are graded on. The vehicles must undergo stringent inspection, and design, safety and teamwork awards are presented for unique approaches to meeting the challenges.

Red UrbanConceptThe main event is the mileage competition, which is, after all, the ultimate goal of competition. Teams navigate a circuit in Detroit at predetermined speed and continue for a set number of laps. Teams start with only one liter of fuel (or equivalent), and their overall efficiency is calculated after they complete their run.

The competition is said to have started as a friendly challenge between Shell employees to see who could travel the farthest on the same amount of fuel. In addition to the “Americas” competition, it now extends to Europe and Asia as well. 

The competition is yet over, but leading teams have shown some impressive number already. Leading the prototype gasoline division is a Canadian team from Universite Laval with a fuel efficiency of 1137 km/l (~ 2674 mpg). Leading the prototype electric/battery category is Mater Dei High School with an efficiency of 572 km/kWh.

The Urban Concept class is also doing well, with Mater Dei High School also leading the gasoline competition there at 183 km/l (~ 430 mpg). Electric results are not yet posted. All the results can be found here. With the competition ongoing, there is bound to be more big numbers posted. The video below shows some highlights so far.


Images: Shell Eco-Marathon