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Driving Detroit: Pushing fuel economy to the max

The Shell Eco-Marathon brings wild-looking cars to the streets of Detroit in a bid for a more fuel-sipping automotive future.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Welcome to "Driving Detroit," a Roadshow series taking a high-fidelity look at the cultural and economic revolution under way in the Motor City. Exciting new mobility and transportation startups are appearing every day, and transformed, re-energized auto industry stalwarts are bringing new technology and fresh ways of thinking to bear in Detroit. Modern America was built on the back of Motown, and this city's nascent industrial and cultural revitalization has all the makings of America's greatest comeback yet. Join us as we take a closer look.

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On a sunny spring weekend, a car race of sorts is taking place between some odd-looking vehicles on a street circuit in downtown Detroit, but this definitely isn't the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix where 700-horsepower open-wheel racers sprint to the checkered flag. Instead, the winner from the field of the single-digit-horsepower cars gingerly circling the track won't be the one that crosses the finish line first, it's the one that does so in the most fuel-efficient manner, because that's the name of the game at the Shell Eco-Marathon.

What is the Eco-Marathon, you ask? It's a competition for high school and college teams to design and build the most fuel-efficient vehicles possible. Split between two categories, teams can construct either a Prototype, low-slung vehicles where anything goes that aim for extreme efficiency, or an UrbanConcept, which look more like traditional road-going cars, including four wheels and doors, as well as working lights and wipers.

Within each category, teams select from seven forms of propulsion including gas, diesel, ethanol, compressed natural gas and natural gas-to-liquids. If teams opt for an electric power train, they can go with battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell. To give you an idea of the fuel-efficiency levels teams achieve in competition, many will do in the hundreds of miles per gallon range, while some will be in the thousands of miles per gallon realm. The current record is 3,587 mpg set in 2013 by a gas-powered prototype. These, then, are not your everyday, run-of-the-mill economy cars.

The odd-looking cars of the Shell Eco-Marathon have one thing on their minds: saving fuel.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

This year's event marked the 10th running of the Americas event, and the second one held in Detroit after Shell transplanted it from Houston last year. The move to the Motor City made a lot of sense, and was fitting according to Niel Golightly, Shell's vice president of external relations. "It [Detroit] is the capital of mobility...we've got students here from all over the hemisphere taking their vehicles that they built, and actually running them on the same streets Henry Ford tested his Quadricycle on over a hundred years ago."

Car dealer, renowned race team owner and go-to Detroit events guy Roger Penske sees the Eco-Marathon setting up shop in Detroit as a big benefit for area businesses, too. "This brings a number of great young people together; it's a catalyst for engineering. I think it's a fishing pond for companies that want engineers for the future," said the 16-time Indianapolis 500-winning owner.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles used the Eco-Marathon for exactly that, taking the opportunity to headhunt for interns candidates during the weekend. "We got 1,300 kids here that are really, really passionate about engineering, and one of the big challenges for us going forward is to find engineering talent that is going to produce the cars of the future," said FCA's Chris Cowland, director of advanced and SRT powert rain. "This couldn't be more perfect for us having access to the kids, seeing the products that they are working on, and there's so much synergy between what they are doing and how we develop cars for the future. It really couldn't be a better opportunity."

Many of the students were also clearly excited to be in the city. "We're in Detroit, and it's great to be here to see the GM building, and it's cool to see all this stuff. This is the heart of the auto industry in North America and probably the world," says University of Toronto student Sam Beggs.

For Brazilian Luiz Petro of Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie, his team's visit to Detroit is awe-inspiring. "It's exciting for us. We were able to go to the GM factory, and the Fiat Chrysler factory. It was a huge honor for us. Things we couldn't even imagine to know in Brazil."

In total, a record 124 teams representing seven countries descended on Detroit to participate in this year's competition. Prior to putting boots on the ground, teams dedicated hundreds, if not thousands of hours to their cars in addition to their regular class loads for designing, fabricating, tuning and testing to push the efficiency envelope. All the time together saw teams build not only their cars, but in many cases, also stronger relationships between one another. "We were friends at the beginning, but now we've become like sisters, we're family, not just a team," said Victoria Irvin, team manager for the all-girl ShopGirls team from Granite Falls High School in Washington.

Before getting on track, teams need to pass a rigorous technical inspection.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Every Eco-Marathon team's ultimate goal culminates on the track snaking between high-rise buildings in downtown Detroit. However, before being allowed on it, cars have to go through a rigorous technical inspection. The vehicles are put through a gamut of tests to make sure weight, safety harnesses, brakes and turning radius meet competition regulations, among other criteria. If a team fails to pass inspection, they have to scramble to improve their designs, and keep going back until they do. Once on track, teams are required to complete 10 laps of the circuit traveling a total distance of six miles for an acceptable qualifying run.

In the end, the Université Laval team from Quebec took home the overall win this year by achieving 2,585 miles per gallon in its gasoline Prototype, while the top UrbanConcept vehicle came from Indiana's Mater Dei High School, netting 793 mpg on gas. Other notable class winners include the ShopGirls team, who took top honors with a 1,115-mpg result in their diesel prototype.

Teams campaigning UrbanConcept vehicles were in competition for an invitation to the first-ever Shell Eco-Marathon Drivers' World Championship held in London on July 3. There, they will battle it out against other UrbanConcept invitees from Asia and Europe for the chance to spend a week with the Ferrari Formula One team at its Maranello, Italy, headquarters, where they will receive advice on how to improve their cars for next year's Eco-Marathon. Teams from the Americas headed to London include Mater Dei High School, Minnesota's Alden-Conger High School, and Saint Thomas Academy and Newburgh Free Academy out of New York.

An UrbanConcept vehicle on track in downtown Detroit.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

While the Eco-Marathon provides a platform for current high school and college students to gain hands-on development experience, Shell also took steps to try to inspire future competitors by busing in more than 9,000 area grade-school kids to see the cars and mingle with the teams. The event was also free to spectators, with a total of over 20,000 visitors coming to Detroit's Cobo Center to check out all the action, and experience the city over the weekend.

If you didn't make it to the Shell Eco-Marathon Americas this year, you're in luck, because the event is already confirmed for a Detroit return in 2017, but the exact date hasn't been announced just yet. While the on-track antics of the wacky-looking cars may not put you on the edge of your seat, the passion, creativity and camaraderie the student teams exhibit throughout the event is downright inspiring and worth seeing in person.