Monday, March 8, 2010

World Record Fuel Economy

Have we reached the plateau of fuel efficiency? Turned the last screw in our push toward the envelope of known technology? At first I couldn't believe the claim: over 12,000 miles per gallon. Now I can't believe it hasn't been improved upon.

The Guinness World Record for fuel efficiency was awarded in 2005 to a Swiss team with a PAC-Car II hydrogen-powered car. Lino Guzzella and his team at ETH Zurich recorded an astounding 5,385 km per liter of gasoline (12,666 mpg!) during the Shell Eco-marathon in Ladoux (France). The vehicle weighed a feathery 60 pounds and had an aerodynamic drag coefficient of 0.075.

Hydrogen power is impressive, but it still doesn't compete with the sun-fed system of solar vehicles. The solar car can travel an indefinite distance without using any fuel at all (provided sun is readily available). I was shooting the event for The Macomb Daily newspaper on July 19, 1990 as the University of Michigan Sunrunner crossed the finish line and won the first GM Sunrayce. It was a memorable event seeing the maize and blue solar cell-covered car stealthily cross the finish line with a a cheering team in tow at the General Motors Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. The Sunrunner electric car weighed a heafty 500 pounds and had an aerodynamic drag coefficienct of .108.

Solar powered vehicles have matured and improved at an astonishing rate since that momentous event in 1990. The race to higher fuel efficiency with hydrogen powered vehicles is sure to follow a similar path, albeit not as dramatic. The fact that Hydrogen became a recognized official fuel in 2004 like gasoline and petrol helped with the path to world records.

So why hasn't another team broken the record since? Have we reached the epitome of drag coefficiency. Has the tire technology reached its limit? Or is it just that the students at ETH Zurich are taking a break for a while as everyone else catches up?

(PAC-Car 2 photos courtesy ETH Zurich)