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Race for the Future: Shell Eco-marathon experience

3rd May 2018 4:04 pm

We attend the Asia-Pacific edition of the 2018 Shell Eco-marathon and drive a lightweight, Honda-powered prototype.

 I am geared up in a race suit, waiting for my shot at the track. But I won’t be racing. Instead, I’ll be competing with others for fuel efficiency. My drive is a lightweight, capsule-shaped, one-seat car that weighs 70kg – which is as much as I weigh. I sit in a very cramped-up position and all the controls – like those for the throttle and brakes – are on a bike-like steering handlebar. The steering column is a bit too close for comfort and my 176cm frame just about squeezes in, with my feet touching the front tip of the car. As the team fits the upper-half of the body shell, I’m left with literally zero wiggle room inside. Behind me is a very noisy 4.8hp 163cc Honda engine borrowed from a lawn-mower. Contrary to the popular notion that Honda engines are fun and high revving, this one is quite the opposite. To give you an idea, on full throttle, this car manages 20kph at best. Although I wouldn’t know for sure, because of the absence of a speedometer.

My job was to drive around a track, roughly 300m-long, for six laps and extract the best possible efficiency. I’m used to testing cars for economy on a regular basis, so I thought that this would be a cakewalk. However, an engineer revealed a trick that most students adopt to maximise efficiency: you’re supposed to build speed on the straights, then turn the engine off and coast as far as possible, then repeat the process once the speed drops. This isn’t fuel efficiency then, it’s energy efficiency. Still, I gave it my best shot. As soon as I drove back to the pits after completing my run, the team quickly came with their measurement devices and refilled fuel using pipettes, to accurately measure the fuel I consumed. What I managed then was my personal-best efficiency figure of 58kpl. However, my performance here was satisfactory at best, as this car has managed 205kpl in the past, nearly four times better!

This entire experience was set up to give us a taste of the harsh conditions that the participants would go through in this Eco-marathon. They would be competing to achieve maximum efficiency over a much longer duration, covering a much larger distance. To add to that, what I learnt in Singapore’s blistering heat is that driving with thick racing gear and sitting in a cramped position without any ventilation is extremely challenging.

So what’s this Eco-marathon all about, you ask? Shell, the petrochemical company, gives students a global platform to build, showcase and compete in cars that are energy-efficient. This year, the Asia-Pacific edition witnessed a participation of over 120 teams from across the region, including nine from India. There were two categories – Prototype and Urban Concept – each having certain criteria for classification like weight, dimensions, etc. These were further divided in three sub-categories – Internal Combustion Engine, Electric Battery and Hydrogen Fuel Cell. The common factor was the focus on weight-saving, minimising rolling resistance and improving aerodynamics.

The passion and energy among the competing students was truly electrifying (pardon the pun) as they invested months of blood, sweat and tears. Each team was extremely proud of their creation – and even more so, as they sported their country’s national flag. With efficiency, emissions, electrification and alternate fuel options being important buzzwords in the automotive industry, such events give future scientists and engineers a great platform to showcase their prowess; and in the years to come, we could expect many innovative ideas from here to be part of the cars we drive.

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