Watching the Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2013 is, to be honest, kind of boring. Yes, the vehicles are all interesting and unusual, but they don't go very fast, you only see them on the track for a brief moment (there's no live video feed) and the ones competing against each other aren't even racing at the same time. But this is an efficiency challenge, after all, and one where students can learn by doing. Much of the action, after all, is off-side. It's the struggle of the 120 different high school and college teams to design their vehicles, to build them and – in the case of University of Alaska – take them apart and check them in their luggage. Multiply that by 140 vehicles and it becomes pretty clear pretty quick that there are roughly a million stories at the Eco-marathon, on the track and off.
Those stories continued today. As the first vehicles made the early competition laps, many of the vehicles in the paddock were in various states of untogetherness. As in, they were still being tinkered with, adapted and reconfigured. By the end of the day, it became clear that some of them simply would not be able to pass the safety inspection.
It becomes pretty clear pretty quick that there are roughly a million stories at the Eco-marathon, on the track and off.
Even if a vehicle makes it onto the track, there is no guarantee of success. One of the best-looking vehicles here, an all-electric DeLorean-style all-electric from St. Paul's School, a high school in Covington, LA, made an impression during the opening ceremonies. The team figured you don't have to look uncool to have a fuel-efficient car, and even added blue neon accent lights on the bottom. But, after being called to the starting line today, the EV didn't even make it around the track once. St. Paul's also brought an "taxi," in part to make the point that you can reduce fuel use by 50 percent by adding a person. You can't fail with that logic.
From the sidelines, we listened in as team members from Louisiana Tech University coached their driver through his ten laps via cell phone, just one group of many we saw trying to get their partners behind the wheel to improve their driving. Coast more on this lap, they said. Don't worry about your speed, you're fine there, they said, discussing amongst themselves how best to tackle each lap. At least one car in the competition was hooked up for wireless communication, transmitting important data to the team in the paddock. In the on-track competition, drivers need to go around the course ten times, making three 30-second stops during the run. They'll be judged on how little energy they use and need to finish in a maximum time of 24:45. As we'll see, it can be a hot 25 minutes.
Related GalleryShell Eco-marathon 2013 Americas: Day 2
The 0.6-mile Eco-marathon course wraps around Discovery Green in downtown Houston, TX (and, despite the Eco-marathon being a Shell event, the Green is sponsored in part by BP and has "Marathon Oil Bike Racks," which amused us). One of the big winners in previous years was the small, private Catholic school Mater Dei, which this year brought four vehicles and a team of 20 (another dozen remained home in Indiana). We spoke with drivers Emily McAtee, senior, and Ethan Vibbert, junior.
"Last year we did really well," McAtee told AutoblogGreen. "All four of our cars won" But those victories didn't mean laurels could be rested upon. The team built an all-new gas-powered urban car this year, and improved the gasoline prototype from last year. "It felt like we had to work really hard this year," Vibbert said. "We have high standards to live up to," McAtee added.
So, as previous winners, does Mater Dei feel compelled to keep trade secrets in order to stay on top? "With the battery car, not so much," Vibbert said. "We've been helping the second-place team this year. We showed them our car and we told them exactly what we bought and they're using it."
"We showed the second-place team our car and we told them exactly what we bought and they're using it" - Mater Dei's Ethan Vibbert, junior.
Another team that needed help was West Side High School from Houston (btw, local teams had waaaay more cheering supporters, as you might be able to guess). The team brought two vehicles made out of bamboo and rattan, the Bamboozlers, in part because they do not have a big budget and the material is afforadble. You'll note that they even use recycled aluminum cans on the rear.
Innovation is a key word among the teams, as the aforementioned Alaska team proves. Each year, they get into discussions with the TSA about the contents of their checked bags. Each year, needing to take things apart means they are still building things at the 11th hour. To get the parts to Texas, the chassis were disassembled, and the wheels and front roll cages were taken off. Some parts just get welded in Houston. With 15 team members, and Alaska Airlines' policy that allows each one to check two bags for free, that's a lot of carrying capacity, but it's not ideal. The University's Michael Golub told us, "I could put them in a crate but you have to pack it a lot sooner. I'm still debating getting some rental space and leaving them here for next year."
"The first year we just took one car. They give you move of a travel stipend if you have more cars." This year, the Alaska team brought six.
The U of A team was originally attracted to the Eco-marathon because of the electric vehicle category (Golub has taught classes on EV conversions) and, "The first year we just took one car and last year we showed up with four. They give you move of a travel stipend if you have more cars." This year, the team brought six.
The Nanooks were not the only ones who traveled from far away. Brazil, Guatamala and Mexico were also represented. Hans Hoffmann, a member of Team Ecofet from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, said the competition at the Eco-marathon is higher than what he saw at a similar event the team won in Brazil last year. That event had 24 teams, also competing with multiple powertrain types. The 13-member Ecofet uses E100 (100 percent ethanol), because, "It is a very popular fuel in Brazil," Hoffmann said, "and we have a history in this category."
As should be obvious by now, there is a wide range of schools, vehicles and approaches to saving fuel in play at an Eco-marathon. Even within the same school, there can be big differences – like at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, for example. Standing in the sun while waiting to reach the starting line, we found team members Daniel Wang, sophomore, and Nathan Nissen, freshman, standing next to a see-through body shell with wheels. "It's a sauna inside there," Nissen admitted. What's more interesting is that this is the hand-me-down car. "This car has been around, I think, since dinosaur times," he joked.
"We've completely changed the design of our newer cars," Wang said, including a more curved bottom, thanks to better computer modeling. The engine for the second-hand model – which was being worked on even as the two were standing in line – was also changed. "This car used a carbureted, 25-cc Honda, and we moved up to a fuel-injected Briggs and Stratton with a Yamaha stuck inside of it." Nissen said the new engine has a much greater compression ratio and the valves mean the fuel burns leaner, "so we can get that much more power out of it, for the fuel that we put into it." The older students' car also benefits from using carbon fiber instead of a clear plastic shell. "That helps with the sauna thing," Wang said.
The two are young members of the team, though, so they have to make due with the older model. "We learn different aspects of the car before going on to testing and working on new ideas," Wang said.
Speaking of new ideas, we've saved the best for last. Despite the fact that the solar car from Purdue University was still going through inspection late Saturday, the team's Zack Lapetina said things were looking good. As as for Purdue's
"I'm not going to call it a loophole, because we followed the rules. I call it innovation" - Zack Lapetina, Purdue.
The idea works like this. The team's vehicle has five troughs running down its back end. Each trough has a third of a solar cell at the bottom – "That's how we keep our meters squared down," Lapetina said, to comply with the letter of the Eco-marathon laws – with aluminum reflective coating on the sides and a Fersnel lens on top. Not only does the sun's intensity get magnified by this system, but the burning ball of fire doesn't need to be directly overhead, either, thanks to the reflectors. "Granted, there are efficiency losses there, but it's more than what we would get if we just had [the solar panels] hanging out on top," Lapetina said. The car also has a battery backup – in case of clouds or other problems – but the idea is for the car to generate more energy than it consumes as it goes around the track. If it works, it should make Shell's official efficiency calculations explode, thus handing the victor's trophy to the team from Purdue. We will find out tomorrow.