Wednesday, May 14, 2014

2,824 MPG: now that’s fuel efficiency

There has been so much crappy news of late, climate-wise.

First, there was last week’s release of the White House report on climate change.

Then there was the news that East Antarctica may be melting more rapidly that previously thought, which could raise the ocean level by 4 meters over the next 100 years.

And, as is always the case when there’s any news on climate change, the comment sections brings out an awful lot of folks who manage to pull their heads out of the sand (or out of a more up- close and personal nether region) for long enough to whip off a few words about Al Gore’s weight, moonbats, and people who just plain and simple (with the emphasis on the latter) hate America. I know I should never, ever, ever read the comments section when the article is about the environment, politics, the Obama girls, or sports. Still, I don’t seem to be able to stop myself. This inability is, in itself, disheartening enough, but the disheartenment is compounded by just how disheartening it is to read the comments.

All this disheartenment was somewhat relieved by an article in Business Week on the results of Shell’s Eco-marathon Americas competition, which was won by a group of students from Canada’s  Université Laval.

I’m not going to get all jerky cynical about Shell sponsoring this sort of competition. They’ve got to know that, fossil fuel-wise, the handwriting’s on the wall. So who better than to get ahead of the game than an old fossil of a fossil fuel company?

Not familiar with this competition? Well, neither was I. But fortunately, people who can actually answer the challenge do.

Shell Eco-marathon challenges student teams from around the world to design, build and test ultra energy-efficient vehicles. With annual events first in the Americas, then Europe and Asia, the winners are the teams that go the furthest using the least amount of energy. The events spark debate about the future of mobility and inspire young engineers to push the boundaries of fuel efficiency.

I for one am all in favor of “inspiring young engineers to push the boundaries of fuel efficiency.” The young engineers of my generation were more likely to give us electronic gizmos with marginal utility. Fuel efficiency, smaller-cheaper-more-energy-more-power batteries, stopping the East Antarctica plug from unplugging: you go, young engineers!

Or, should we say jeunes ingénieurs, since this year’s winners are from Canada’s premier French-language university.

The winning group, from Université Laval in Quebec, overcame technical setbacks, including excess friction short circuits, to achieve an efficiency of 2,824 miles per gallon. To put that in perspective, the prototype could travel from New York to Los Angeles on less than a gallon of fuel. And that figure is still well below the 3,587 miles per gallon the same school achieved last year. (Université Laval has won five out of the last six Shell competitions.) (Source: Business Week.)

The car won’t be showing up on any0506_shell_cars_970-630x420time soon, and it won’t ever be replacing the family mini-van or SUV. Still, what a tremendous accomplishment.

The category that Laval won was the Prototype class, which goes for maximum efficiency, rather than things like creature comfort. Having driven cross-country in a Karmann Ghia, I can state with assurance that putting the pedal to the metal on Route 90 and driving straight out there from Boston to Seattle in the Laval vehicle would not be a thing of comfort.

The other category, Urban Concept, focuses more on the passenger side.

This year’s Urban Concept winner was a team of high schoolers from Mater Dei in Evansville, Indiana.*

(Mater Dei! Mother of God, could there be a more retro Catholic school name out there!)

Mater Dei’s winner gets 849 MPG, an2014 Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2014d is a lot cuter than the tiny Smart Cars that are starting to appear around these parts. Completely adorable. Don’t you just expect to see the door open and a couple of little green Martians step out?

The question du jour, which Business Week asks, is:

If a group of students can build a hyper-efficient vehicle, what’s standing in the way of carmakers doing the same?


For starters, these prototypes are built to conserve fuel, not for everyday safety and speed.

Other innovations that emerged from the contest were a steering wheel made on a 3D printer, and a set made out of kombucha…

… a microbial culture that can be consumed as tea or, in this case, turned into vegetable leather.

Good to know the future’s not all gloom and doom. If ever I buy another automobile, I’ll be sure to look for kombucha seats.


*I checked out the school and their motto is “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve.” Coincidentally, this was the motto of my husband’s alma mater, Bellows Falls High School. In Jim’s day, some student wags once altered the sign to read “Enter to Learn Crime, Go Forth to Serve Time.” Curiously, this proved true for one of Jim’s classmates, who dropped out of Fordham to join the Westie’s (New York’s Irish Mafia), and ended up doing time in Sing Sing.


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