Futuristic cars push limits of fuel efficiency in Shell Eco-marathon (photos)

HOUSTON — It’s race day, and Hansel Sjukur, a freshman at University of Illinois, is collected despite the last-minute hurdles facing his team.

Sjukur and his teammates have traveled across the country to compete in Shell Eco-marathon Americas, an international challenge in which more than 120 teams work to design the most fuel-efficient vehicles. But things aren’t going exactly as they planned.

Until last week, the team planned to run their car on a hydrogen fuel cell. But a hiccup with a last-minute order meant that fuel cell wouldn’t be arriving. Moreover, the team’s backup fuel cell wasn’t working. So they set about converting the entire car to run on gasoline.

“We changed everything — the electrical and the mechanical,” Sjukur said. “The whole week’s been pretty crazy.”

So this weekend, the team has abandoned plans of trying to beat a previous record for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. On Friday, the students were just hoping to pass an inspection and be able to compete.

For engineering students across the country, the contest is often the capstone of a year of hard work in a race that’s unlike others. In this contest, speed doesn’t count. Instead, the only thing that matters is fuel efficiency.

Student-designed cars travel six miles through a circuit that loops around downtown’s Discovery Green park, competing to see who can use the least amount of fuel to travel that distance. Last year’s winner, a Quebec team, designed a vehicle that got 3,587 miles per gallon.

It may seem like a strange race to be backed by Shell, which sells oil and gas. But company officials say it’s a natural fit for their business.

The company projects global energy consumption to double within the next 30 years, says Wolfgang Warnecke, Shell’s chief scientist for mobility.

“We’ll have a huge challenge to provide all that energy around the globe,” Warnecke said, adding that new vehicle technology will be needed simply to keep up with the demand. “I try to understand not just what we do today, but what we’re doing tomorrow.”

For the competitors, almost all of whom are engineering majors, the contest involves getting a slew of factors just right in order to extract every inch out of their cars and find the edge they need to win.

John Young, a junior at  University of Michigan, expected his group’s yellow, torpedo-shaped car to get 2,300 miles per gallon. Part of his team’s strategy involves walking the track with a GPS device ahead of the competition and using computer software to help model the perfect route for the driver.

“All of us are really interested in sustainability,” Young said. “We all drive really fuel-efficient vehicles. This is something we can really get passionate about.”

T.J. Spence a senior at Louisiana Tech University, helped develop a system that links his team’s car to its pit crew via wireless Internet so they can monitor the vehicle’s performance — even while in motion — and tweak it accordingly.

The competition, which draws entrants from as far away as Brazil, features two classes of vehicles: futuristic, streamlined prototypes that resemble something from Tron, and urban concept cars that are more suitable to the needs of today’s drivers. Vehicles can be powered by any of six fuel types. The most advanced cars are so light that their drivers actually weigh more than their cars, and they have to carefully squeeze into cockpits barely bigger than their bodies.

The winning teams in both classes receive a grand prize of $2,000 for their school. Some of the most advanced designs can cost tends of thousands of dollars to design and build, and in many cases, students must find sponsors and other funding sources for support.

Event organizers say the goal is to give students a venue for getting hands-on experience as part of an effort to encourage the next generation of workers in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

On Friday, students kicked off the weekend’s events by making adjustments to their vehicles at the George R. Brown Convention Center — for now, a makeshift garage — and launching test runs ahead of races the rest of the weekend.

This year’s competition is bittersweet: after five years in Houston, the event is saying farewell, at least for now. In 2015, it moves to Detroit.

This weekend marks the eighth year of the American competition, which was held in California before it moved to Houston. Other versions are also held annually in Europe and Asia.

A Shell spokeswoman said the company hasn’t announced where the Americas contest will be held beyond 2015.

The competition is being held at Discovery Green park through Sunday. You can learn more about the students’ efforts in a trailer for Shell’s recently aired documentary about the competition, called “The Road to Houston.”

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