The idea of environmentally friendly motor racing at first glance seems like an oxymoron. Yet there are numerous examples of eco racing where speed isn't the only measure of success. And it's not just driving skills that are tested; most events require the manufacture of a vehicle - stretching engineering skills too.
How far can you drive on a single gallon of fuel? That's what the annual Shell Eco-Marathon aims to decide. Separate competitions are held in the Americas and Europe, which attract many high school and university student teams. The competition requires that each vehicle averages at least 15 mph over a fixed 10 mile course (usually laps). The equivalent miles per gallon (mpg) is calculated based on the amount of fuel consumed over the 10 mile course. At the 2003 European event Microjoule, a French team from Sebastien/Loire, set the current distance record for gasoline of 10,705 mpg. In the 2005 European event the PAC-Car II, built by a team from ETH Zürich, set the current absolute record of 12,665 mpg powered by hydrogen.
In the most recent Americas event (held in April 2008) Mater Dei High School of Evansville, Indiana won with a modest (at least by European standards) 2,843 mpg, beating many university teams from Canada, Mexico and the US in the process.
The cars in these competitions featured slippery, streamlined shapes to minimize drag, and sported a host of engines types, such as gasoline, diesel and fuel cell.
American Solar Challenge
The American Solar Challenge is a race for solar powered cars. The 2008 event started in Plano, Texas on July 13 and finished 9 days later in Calgary, Alberta. The total distance covered was 2,400 miles. The winning team from the University of Michigan completed the route in 51 hrs 41 min. As with other eco races the competition attracted numerous university teams from the US, Canada, Germany and the UK.
The cars attempted to minimize drag through streamlining, but also had to ensure a large upper surface area to convert sunlight into electricity using photovoltaic (solar) cells.
Formula Hybrid was conceived by Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth in 2007 as an alternative to the popular Formula SAE (FSAE) competition. The twist with Formula Hybrid is to perform the same series of trials and races as FSAE but while using a limited amount of fuel. The cars typically use electric-gasoline hybrid engines and regenerative braking to compensate for the restricted fuel.
The event is open to university teams and has so far been dominated by McGill University who has won both the 2007 and 2008 competitions. The McGill team focuses on minimizing the weight of their car - and to good effect too.
You'll notice that a common theme amongst the eco racing events is the enthusiastic participation of young student engineers. The skills developed in response to eco racing events will serve these engineers well when they enter the workforce and join the fight to save the planet from global warming.