Students to race highly efficient vehicles in Houston

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Shell Eco-Marathon gears up for this week's raceTeams of teenagers will do next week what American and international auto manufacturers have apparently never tried. They will display the wildly fuel-efficient vehicles they’ve created.

Seventy teams of high school and college students will race their high-efficiency vehicles in Houston, Texas, in the Shell Eco-Marathon April 14 and 15. The winner of the race is the team that goes the farthest on the least fuel.

Students use a number of different technologies, including solar photovoltaics, to power their vehicles farther with less.

Last year’s Eco-Marathon Americas race resulted in a broken record, with the winning team driving its fuel-efficient vehicle nearly 2,500 miles on a single gallon of gas, according to a 2010 press release from Shell.

While congress dithers about the dangers to the economy involved in increasing the national fuel-efficiency standard to 60 miles per gallon, these students can practically drive their creations coast to coast on the equivalent of a single gallon of gas.

This year’s competition could see even greater gains, according to event spokesman Ted Rolfvondenbaumen, because students will be allowed to use electric plug-in technology for the first time this year.

Teams enter vehicles in two categories: Prototype, which includes concept cars designed to get the maximum gas mileage without necessarily being the type of car the average American would drive, and the UrbanConcept category, which includes cars designed to be driven that look more like traditional automobiles.

Of the 70 teams participating in this year’s Eco-marathon, the Prototype entries consist of 43 vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, including 35 by gasoline, four by ethanol, three by diesel fuel, and one by FAME. The 19 Prototype vehicles powered by e-mobility include 10 by Plug-in electricity, four by fuel cell/hydrogen technology and five by solar.

“The atmosphere at this event, and I mean this in a positive way,” Rolfvondenbaumen said, “is tense and hectic.”

He said the students are so invested in their projects and so passionate about the cars they’ve created that they never stop tinkering and trying to make the smallest adjustments and improvements at every opportunity.

Rolfvondenbaumen said this is the second year the race is being held in an urban environment. Previously it was hosted on a racetrack.

Solar power has historically been a major player at the event, and this year is no exception.

Students are exploring new technologies and using batteries like they’ve never been able to use them before, he said. That’s part of why the competition this year includes plug-in electric vehicles, some of which will also contain a solar element, Rolfvondenbaumen said.

“It’s a very exciting event,” he said.

It’s free and open to the public.

Pictured: Images from last year’s Shell Eco-marathon Europe at the EuroSpeedway, courtesy of Shell.