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This week marked the 26th Shell Eco-marathon, a competition where innovation reigns supreme.  Laval University from Canada took top honors at the Houston, Texas event, as did Purdue University and the Cicero North Syracuse High School team from New York.

Eco-marathon

While the Eco-marathon (a competition similar to SMV that encourages teams of students to build fuel efficient vehicles) as we know it has only been around since 1985, Shell scientists held their own version of the event way back in 1939.  Of course, this involved a bunch of scientists taking bets on whose car could get the best miles per gallon, so it is a little different from the competition today.

There are two types of competitors at the Eco-marathon: prototype models (cars that try to be the most fuel efficient while meeting basic safety measures) and UrbanConcept (vehicles that are similar to cars you’d see on roadways but are still as fuel efficient as possible).  Car models can run on pretty much anything, including:

  • Diesel
  • Petrol
  • Liquefied Petroleum Gas
  • Biodiesel
  • Ethanol
  • Solar
  • Electric
  • Biofuels
  • Gas to Liquids

Prizes are awarded based on categories.  This year in the Prototype section, Laval got 2,487.5 miles per gallon in the combustion engine category.  The Cicero team took top honors in the fuel cell/hydrogen cars with 780.9 miles per gallon while Purdue won the solar competition with 4,548 mpg.

Purdue Solar Car

Purdue students were undoubtedly pretty thrilled about their performance in the solar category.

Over on the UrbanConcept side, the Mater Dei High School from Evansville, IN won the combustion engine category with 437.2 mpg.  Other awards, such as People’s Choice, Design, and Best Team Spirit were doled out, as you can see in this complete list of winners.

So it’s clear that this competition is set up a little differently than the Supermileage Vehicle event.  It’s run by a private company (all Eco-marathoners run Shell fuels, natch), there are fewer specs for the vehicles, and it’s open to students from all walks of life, rather than collegiate engineers.  Put simply, I think the whole thing is great.  Hopefully I can learn more about it and report back, but from what I do know, the set-up seems pretty neat.  Shell is encouraging fuel efficiency in any form and giving kids a chance to experiment and think about different ways of doing things without having to invest millions of research dollars (although I think those investments are important, too).  Students are a fantastic resource, and as a student, I say capitalize on us!  Use us (within reason)!  We need experience, you need people doing work, and we may as well be doing work that can make a difference, right?

If I’ve figured out anything, it’s that there is no single clear way forward.  There are a million ways to skin a cat, and while hopefully we won’t have to figure out a million different paths forward from here on out, we certainly need all these ideas and skill sets.  Way to go, Eco-marathon competitors!

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When I nearly got mowed down by a silent Prius the other day, I just had to think of this.  Sorry the quality’s not so great, but maybe it will give you some ideas for any street fights/duels you happen to get into over the weekend.

In all seriousness, the Prius and other EVs and hybrids do pose a concern to those with vision problems, the blind, and children, like this boy who biked into a hybrid a few years ago.  While several solutions to this downfall have been proposed, none seem to have been adopted.  Of course, Toyota has bigger fish to fry with the Prius.

For those of us who have the ability to do so, let’s try to remember: look both ways before bopping across the street, especially in Prius-saturated areas.

I’m going to be honest here.  I don’t drive the greenest car at this moment in time.  It’s a ’94 Toyota 4Runner that gets about 20 miles to the gallon.  It’s not terrible, but it’s not great, and will likely meet its death soon due to various health problems.

For anyone who’s not quite sure what a 4Runner is like, just picture the kinds of SUVs that cruise around the African desert, the kind that can go through monsoons and still look all right, or even the kind that can sit on top of an exploding building and drive away from the wreckage (at least I’ve been told they can do that).  My car’s pretty sturdy, which has let to numerous people believing they should bomb around in it as a rally car.  Because I do indeed like my car and need it to get around, I have politely declined all these years.  Perhaps I’ll let someone take it on one last hurrah before it’s retired.

Electric car

Rally car? I guess! This guy's all set for e-Miglia.

One rally my car won’t be participating in is the new e-Miglia rally, slated to happen August 3-6.  The rally is open to four different kinds of electric vehicles, including two, three, and four-wheelers, as well as hybrids.  The rally is organized by the same people who put on the Transsyberia Rally, but e-Miglia will run over paved roads between Germany and Italy, focusing on how well the electric vehicles run and their overall consistency.  There’s 10,000 Euros in prize money to be had, which should give some incentive to fill the 50 open slots for drivers.

Rally car

Electric rally car? Not so much.

The original Miglia rally, the Mille Miglia, ran almost 25 times between 1927 and 1957 and helped to showcase some of the nicest car companies in the world (Porsche or Ferrari, anyone?).  The goal of the e-Miglia rally is to do the same for electric cars: put them in the spotlight and show off their sportiness, reliability, and versatility.  These electric cars probably won’t be cruising through the bogs like other rally cars, but hopefully the event will raise awareness to everything that electric cars can do.

Wanna join the rally?  Check out their website (speaking German is a plus there) and book your plane tickets.  Apparently all you need is a driver’s license and an EV!

I’m on this electric craze lately.  Electric has a lot of benefits, from their emissions (none) to their dependence on foreign oil (none) to their fun way of sneaking up on people (cool).

It might have started with an electric golf cart I get to drive sometimes.  Topping out at perhaps 12 mph, it’s fun to drive around the block, and also just around the yard when the dog chases it.  It’s so quiet I can creep up behind people and scare them, and the horses I ride think it’s some sort of alien machine (they’re internal combustion engine gals).

Golf Cart

Oh yeah, that's what I'm talkin' bout.

But anyways, electric vehicles are a great solution and have the potential to help the environment a lot.  However, when looking strictly at environmental benefits, it’s not so easy as just getting all plug-in cars.  We have to take a look at where that electricity comes from.

My neighbor just redid his roof with solar panels – that’s a great start.  Hawaii is committed to producing 70% of its energy with renewable sources by 2030 – even cooler.  Texas just set a record by producing almost 20% of its electricity needs with wind power.  And the nuclear debate is still going on, so we’ll see where we get there.

Bottom line?  If electric vehicles are the way to go, let’s make sure they’re as clean as possible.  We get clean now or later, and it makes more sense to do it now.

Electricity

Is this the ultimate answer?

I read an article on treehugger.com (Ten things that could suddenly make Americans love EVs) the other day that got me thinking about EVs.  The author had some good ideas, for sure, so let’s look at them and take them a step further (or maybe a step back).

  • Facing massive amounts of unpaid debt, credit card companies ban use of credit cards for buying things like gasoline and groceries. No cash, no drive.

While this might make sense in theory, I don’t think credit cards will ban purchase of such basic essentials (I mean, people have to eat).  Also, people with EVs will likely charge their cars at home, and they still have to pay the electricity bills.

  • Gas goes over $5/gallon and stays there.

Maybe.  I’m no economist, so I’m not sure how gas prices are predicted to increase, and I’m not sure if there are any dramatic increases coming in the near future.  Certainly, however, this is a long-term concern which is likely inevitable.

  • Power companies compete directly with fuel retailers, building charge stations in secure public parking garages and at Park and Ride lots (as pictured). Net monitored use tax can substitute for parking meters.

Competition with the fuel companies?  About time!

  • El Nino cycle ends and for a decade to follow there are extended gas shortages following hurricane season.

This may be…it would certainly drive up oil prices!  People tend to think with their pocketbooks, often out of necessity.

  • Upgradeable driving distance EV’s are offered by the major car companies. The first time buyer can start with a low-cost 40-mile drive range model and add battery capacity up to 200+ miles, as budget and circumstances permit. Models with ranges over 100 miles are offered with a Volt-like hybrid option

I think this will be great, especially in cities.  Gotta get it marketed!

  • Battery prices fall by 50% as manufacturing costs go down.

The technology is said to be out there.  But this is almost like a chicken and egg scenario: battery prices will fall as production increases, production will increase when the demand is there, and the demand will be there when prices are reasonable.  Again, we need commitment and marketing from car companies for consumers to know what the heck is going on.

  • Corporate fleets and local governments decide they need EV’s just to keep operations going and to buffer budgets against unpredictable operating cost fluctuations.

Even without the other benefits of EVs, I think that large contracts from the governments or other agencies would promote production of EVs.  This takes commitment from the government or the agency.  The government is committed to many things with little public support at the moment; the public is focusing on more imminent crises at the moment, so we probably can’t expect anything from the feds.  However, state governments could make commitments, as could corporations or agencies wanting to protect the environment.

  • Very large numbers of rural US poor move to the cities and inner ring suburbs. Small, inexpensive EV’s that can be rented and recharged at work are an option for those who left the big truck back home.

There are theories out there that say the best thing we can do for the planet is to move to the cities and concentrate our mess instead of spreading over sprawling countryside.  Adding EVs to the mix sweetens the deal.

  • Large tax credits are offered for those who purchase or lease US-made EV’s.

There are tax credits currently set up for EV purchasers, but right now it’s set up as a personal tax credit which isn’t accessible at the time of purchase.  This could be made more consumer-friendly, for sure, but a step in the right direction!  After all, Obama said he wants a million plug-ins on America’s roadways by 2015.

  • EV dealers put satellite lots near mass transit hubs, industrial parks, and corporate office centers, offering discount charging for regular customers and shuttle services for those who need them.

Again, makes good sense for city drivers.  Once it is affordable, people should show up.  In theory.

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