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Car Culture

Shell's fuel-efficient car race was slow as heck but I loved it

The Shell Eco-marathon Asia showed sleek futuristic-looking cars going around the track slower than me riding a bicycle (at times).

Aloysius Low/CNET

It's hot, sunny and I'm melting in my own puddle of sweat at Singapore's Changi Exhibition Center, where Shell's Eco-marathon Asia 2018 took place last weekend.

I'm waiting for one of the 120 test cars, either powered by petrol, electricity or hydrogen, to come around the bend so I can snap a picture. A car finally passes by after about 10 seconds or so, a larger-but-aerodynamic UrbanConcept model. It silently coasts along before the engine fires up briefly to accelerate the vehicle before turning off.

That, I'm told, is a strategy called "coast and burn." It maximises the fuel efficiency of the vehicle, something every team in the race has to do in order to win -- as it's not about who's fastest, but who can most efficiently go nine laps around the 1.12km (0.69 mile) track in under 25 minutes.

This kind of makes sense, after all, the race is dubbed an Eco-marathon, and it's come a long way since it started back in 1939 out of a research lab in Illinois. Asia is relatively new to the scene, as this is only its ninth year in the continent and the second time it's happening in Singapore. Students from polytechnics and universities from 18 countries in Asia spend a year designing and building a car, either the UrbanConcept model or a smaller lightweight Prototype version, before racing them around the track.

There are three main legs. The first happens in Asia, the second in Sonoma, California and the last in London, England. Each leg features the aforementioned fuel efficiency run, before the winners go on track to compete in the more exciting Drivers' World Championship, where participants get a set amount of fuel and actually race to the finish.

Car specs

Prototype

UrbanConcept

Weight (max):

140kg (308 lbs)

225kg (496 lbs)

Width:

Max of 3500mm (138 inches)

Between 1200mm to 1300mm (47 inches to 51 inches)

Height: 

Less than 1000mm (39 inches)

Between 1000mm to 1300mm (39 inches to 51 inches)

Min driver weight:

50kg (110 lbs)

70kg (154 lbs)

Engine type:  

Petrol, Electric, Hydrogen

Petrol, Electric, Hydrogen

Fuel tank:

30, 100 or 250cc

30, 100, 250 or 350cc

For the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) team, hydrogen is apparently the way to go. The team is reusing its two-year-old 3D-printed car that has been converted from electric to compete. Some clever strategy was involved in the decision -- there were only three hydrogen teams compared to petrol and electric vehicles, and since you only compete against cars of your type in the efficiency race, the chances of progressing to the Drivers' World Championship were higher.

shellecomarathon-9

To cut down on weight, the insides of the car uses a honeycomb structure for strength. 

Aloysius Low/CNET

Last year, the NTU team qualified for but couldn't finish the Asia leg of the Drivers' World Championship -- they were in third place but ran out of fuel just 200 meters before the finishing line. This year, they beat out the two other Malaysian hydrogen teams (one of which did not pass the technical inspections) to do so, but failed to win a ticket to London.

In the end, it was an all-Indonesian finish, with three teams from the country making a clean sweep at the podium. The winners all used petrol-engines to beat out the electric and hydrogen competition to make it to the London grand finals taking place in July. The champion team, Semar Urban UGM, from Universitas Gadjah Madah, were actually in second place during the earlier lap event, but managed to edge out the most fuel efficient team, ITS Team 2 from Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember, in a thrilling race.

A bumpy ride

shellecomarathon-11

This Shell Prototype is a reference car that requires the driver to be lying down. 

Aloysius Low/CNET

To fully experience the Eco-marathon, I knew I had to take a ride in one of the UrbanConcept cars, and I was able to try it out a day before the students took to the track. However, because it was raining, Shell had a driver take me on the reference car, which just so happened to be a two-seater (the UrbanConcept cars made by the students are all single seaters).

Even before I got into the car, I had to suit up with fire resistant race gear, including a helmet, and in the humid Singapore weather it was pure torture. What's worse, the car didn't come with air-conditioning, to my utmost horror. After doing two laps, using the coast and burn method, I called it quits, as the track was incredibly bumpy and made for an exhausting ride.

I also got to squeeze myself into the tiny Prototype car, which you drive by lying down almost flat to reduce drag. Two helpers then put the cover over me, and even without a helmet on I could barely see anything. It was tight fit given my size -- most Prototype drivers are women or smaller men. I was told by participants that's a sort of advantage that Asians have compared to the west, though if the drivers are too light (there's a minimum weight of 50kg or 110 lbs for the Prototype, 70kg or 154lbs for the UrbanConcept) they have to make it up with weights.

If you're claustrophobic, you'll want to give this a pass. 

Aloysius Low/CNET

While the Prototype vehicles don't actually compete in the Drivers' World Championship, bragging rights are gained by getting ridiculous fuel efficiency numbers. This year saw Thailand's Team Panvidhyal from the Panvidhya Technological College beat last year's record of 2,289 km/l (5,384 mpg) with a fuel efficiency of 2,341 km/l (or about 5,507 mpg). My own car, a Prius hybrid, does 22 km/l in comparison.

That distance means you can easily travel from New York to Kansas with a bit left in the tank, and it's crazy to think that's actually possible. That said, it's not the most comfortable way to travel. Still, these highly aerodynamic vehicles offer us a glimpse of what cars could look like in the future, though I'm hoping they will be a lot more enjoyable to sit in.

Now playing: Watch this: Shell has a car race that's all about fuel efficiency
1:37

Correction, 7:25 p.m., Mar. 15: The 3D-printed car is made by the Nanyang Technological University, and not the National University of Singapore as originally reported.

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