Students Test 6,000-Plus MPG Eco-Marathon Cars At Le Mans

With the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans getting the green light last weekend, millions of viewers around the world turned their attention to this iconic track in France.

But recently the Circuit de la Sarthe race track was the setting for a different type of vehicle when Shell brought its Eco-marathon prototypes to show what they can do.

The Eco-marathon contest brings together teams of high school and college students from around the world, which are challenged to design and build a “hyper-efficient vehicle.” They can power these using gasoline, diesel, ethanol E100, battery, hydrogen fuel cell and (for the first time) compressed natural gas. After assembling the vehicle, the engineering students hit the track to test their design.

These experiments are not meant to become future production vehicles. Rather, the challenge focuses on finding new ways to push the efficiency envelope, incorporating cutting edge technologies like 3D-printing along the way.


The Microjoule CNG Prototype, by team Microjoule-La Joliverie from Lycee Saint-Joseph La Joliverie, France, during practice day 1 of the Shell Eco-marathon Europe 2015 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. (Ermindo Armino/AP Images for Shell)

And while this year marked the 30th anniversary for Eco-marathon Europe, but the race is hardly rote. Each year sees new innovations emerge and new records set, and 2015 was no different.

“In 1985 the winning vehicle would have been efficient enough to travel from Rotterdam to London on just one liter of fuel,” said Shell.

“Now, 30 years later, team Microjoule-La Joliverie could travel from Rotterdam to Moscow on the same quantity of fuel with their 2,551.8 kilometers/liter [6,002 mpg] performance in the Prototype CNG category which was the most efficient result of the competition this year.”

Event organizers said that three track records were set during the 2015 competition:

“In the Prototype category, team TED of France achieved 2,308.3 km/l [5,430 mpg] with gasoline and team IUT GMP Valenciennes set a new track record of 1323.1 km/l [3,112 mpg] with diesel,” said Shell.

“In the UrbanConcept category, team Lycee Louis Delage of France achieved the best-ever performance and track record of 517.3 km/l [1,217 mpg] with gasoline, team DTU Roadrunners of Denmark achieved the best-ever performance and track record of 665 km/l [1,564 mpg] with ethanol.”

Fuel economy ratings reaching beyond 6,000 mpg are mindboggling. But don’t expect numbers like this to transfer to street cars. First of all, because these vehicles are purpose-built for efficiency, they are extremely lightweight. One team’s car weighed only 104 pounds.

Beyond the driver’s gear, safety equipment is limited to an emergency shut-off, a fire extinguisher and a roll cage. Safety standards required for street-use, such as air bags and antilock brakes, are absent.

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Additionally, teams are given 39 minutes to cover 9.9 miles, and the average speed is only 15.5 mph. Fuel savings and distance are unmistakably emphasized over speed. To achieve the highest fuel consumption ratings possible, teams select fuel tanks (or battery stacks) just large enough to reach the end. Power units are similarly downsized to accentuate efficiency over power. (The full rules on how the Eco-marathon calculates fuel consumption ratings can be read here.)

Though it will be some time before fuel economy ratings even close to this are available for passenger cars, the achievements made during these Eco-marthons are certainly worth noting, and applauding.


Photo credit: Patrick Post/AP Images for Shell

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