x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Abu Dhabi students reject gas guzzlers to design super-efficient car

Two teams of students from Abu Dhabi have entered an annual international competition in which teams vie to see how far their hand-built vehicles can go on a single litre.

Vehicles race during the last day of the Shell Eco-marathon Asia 2014 in Manila on Sunday. Students from Asia and the Middle East have come together to compete in the four-day event. Jinggo Montenejo /AP Images for Shell
Vehicles race during the last day of the Shell Eco-marathon Asia 2014 in Manila on Sunday. Students from Asia and the Middle East have come together to compete in the four-day event. Jinggo Montenejo /AP Images for Shell

What makes the Black Widow different to other vehicles on our roads is not its carbon fibre body, or tear drop shape. It is not even the fact that there is room just for the driver.

When it comes to fuel efficiency, the car – designed and built by students from Abu Dhabi – could in theory make the journey from the capitol to Dubai on less than a litre of diesel. Try the same trick in a Land Cruiser or even a Toyota Yaris and the trip will end well before Shahama with you trudging up the hard shoulder in search of the nearest service station.

Built in Mussaffah workshops and at the Men’s College, Black Widow was in action over the weekend in Manila, taking part in the Shell Eco-marathon Asia, in which international teams try to squeeze every last kilometre in pursuit of the ultimate in fuel efficiency.

The idea of an oil company such as Shell backing a fuel efficiency might seem paradoxical. But then so might the participation of one of the world’s major oil-producing nations. Drivers in the UAE enjoy some of the world’s cheapest fuel, and cars tend to be judged on their power, luxury and refinement. Fuel efficiency is generally near the bottom of the list when it comes to choosing a new car.

In fact, Shell, the world’s largest oil company, has been championing fuel efficiency for decades, with the annual Eco-marathon bigger than ever. Likewise, the Emirati teams are determined to show that the environmental impact of driving is high on their personal agendas, spending months, often in their own time, designing, building and testing two vehicles they hoped would win their classes again fierce competition from all over the Middle East and Asia.

Asked how Shell benefits from the competition beyond a branding exercise, the company’s executive vice president for Global Commercial, Mark Gainsborough, admits: “It’s a fair question, but we are as passionate about saving this planet’s resources as anyone. The fact remains, however, that modern society massively depends on fuel – food, water, transport, none of it could happen without fuel.

“So we constantly work with universities, scientists, vehicle manufacturers and other organisations, to pursue ever greater fuel efficiency. And, while the designs and innovations we see at the Eco-challenge aren’t ours to keep, we have recruited many former participants and they continue in their work to reduce consumption with the application of science and intelligence.”

The origins of the marathon go back to 1939 – the year Abu Dhabi signed its first oil concession – at a Shell research laboratory in the United States and a friendly wager between scientists to see who could get the most miles per gallon from their vehicle.

The winner of that contest barely achieved 50mpg (100km per 4.7 litres), but the competition didn’t go away – it simply, and gradually, evolved.

The competition in its current format was born in France in 1958. Students from all over Europe took part, forming teams to develop the most fuel efficient vehicles possible, achieving some startling results. By 2007, Shell’s Eco-marathon Americas event was launched in the United States and in 2010 the inaugural Asian competition was held in Malaysia. Malaysia hosted it until last year but this year the location was Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, where it will continue until 2016.

The premise is a simple one. University teams have to fund, conceptualise, design, build, test and modify their own vehicles to run on an energy source of their choice. The aim is efficiency, not speed, and it’s surreal to stand at the edge of a street racing circuit and see (there isn’t much to hear) dozens of minuscule, bizarre-looking contraptions whizz past, trying to maintain an average speed of just 25 kph. The grandstands might be bereft of flag-waving supporters but the passion in the atmosphere is palpable – this is a contest as real and as fiercely fought as any other.

The competition is split into two classes. The Prototype class (which featured both Emirati teams) focuses on maximum efficiency, with barely a care for passenger comfort or convenience. The UrbanConcept class, meanwhile, encourages more practical designs and the results are (just about) recognisable as tiny cars with windscreens, wipers, roofs, headlamps and indicators. The cars enter one of seven categories to run on conventional petrol and diesel, biofuels, fuel made from natural gas, hydrogen, solar or electricity.

This is no frantic race for the finishing line for the competitors. Instead, over several days, the teams make as many attempts as possible to travel the furthest on the equivalent of one litre of fuel, driving a fixed number of laps around the circuit. Scrutineers calculate their energy efficiency and name a winner in each class and for each energy source.

For the Emirati teams, diesel was the fuel of choice and they spared no effort in ekeing out the longest distance from their futuristic-looking prototype vehicles.

“Both teams are from higher colleges of technology,” says Dr Salem Salem, Program Chair-Mechanical Engineering Technology for Abu Dhabi Men’s Colleges. “One from Abu Dhabi and the other from Ruwais. There were a total of six teams originally but the others were unable to make it here for one reason or another.”

The Black Widow, also known as car number 107, was built by the Abu Dhabi team, some of whom are mature students.

“It took almost a year to get to this stage,” he says, “and the thing was entirely built in the Men’s College workshops. Some of our students have their own workshops in Mussaffah so they’re very experienced with carbon fibre construction, which is an essential part of construction as it is light and extremely strong.

“You’ll see that for most of the teams, aerodynamics are also very important, even at the low speeds we run the cars.

“Different teams take different approaches when it comes to streamlining and we went for a closed canopy to maximise airflow efficiency. We looked at the best place for the engine, which was in the rear of the car, which also allowed us to design a teardrop shape.”

Diesel was chosen as it burns more slowly than petrol and the engines are more fuel-efficient. “While there’s no limit as to how fast you can go here, the average 25 kph rule at least means cars aren’t allowed to take two hours to go around the track. We think we have a really good design here, the wheels are hidden inside the body of the car to minimise drag and the tyres are extremely narrow to get the lowest possible rolling resistance.”

How about previous tests with the Black Widow? What sort of figures was he expecting to achieve at Manila? “When we had it at Yas [Marina], we managed 160km from a litre but we’ve since made adjustments to the car and we’re hoping to get even more out of it. The Ruwais college got better results than we managed, though.”

How has this project affected the students and their everyday habits? Are they now obsessed with efficiency rather than horsepower?

“Of course,” he says. “In their studies they have all come to see the effect that efficiency has on the environment. They became obsessed with reducing the stresses on their cars’ engines. They have become highly critical of the designs of cars they see on the roads, recognising that they could be much more aerodynamic.

“Little things like keeping tyres at the correct pressures are now a big deal, all in the name of fuel efficiency. I already have students lining up to take part in the 2015 challenge, so the enthusiasm is obviously rubbing off.”

The major victors, despite the UAE teams’ best efforts, were from Thailand and Indonesia. The Thai team, How Much Ethanol, from Panjavidhya Technological College, achieved an average of 2,730km on a litre of ethanol – the highest distance recorded at this year’s competition, and the equivalent of driving from Manila to Jakarta.

Since the Asia competition’s inception, Thai teams have dominated the leader board but there is no doubt that the UAE’s future teams will analyse their own performance and that of their competitors. They will be back and they will not stop learning or developing their remarkable inventions until they’re up there as winners. This is a race that in every sense is to be won in the long term.

khackett@thenational.ae