PROVO — The latest addition to BYU's armada of unconventional vehicles is something of a tortoise among cars, built not for speed but winning on distance.
The team, led by BYU graduate student Eric Wardell, tripped across the nation in traditional vehicles last week to take part in the annual SAE Supermileage Competition in Michigan. The team's vehicle ran at an estimated 1,300 miles per gallon, making it the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the competition, and placed second overall.
Their design isn't likely to arrive at your local dealership anytime soon — these vehicles run at a required 15 miles per hour during the SAE competition. Off the track, BYU's design maxes out at 25 mph. The low-profile vehicle would also be difficult, if not impossible, to see from other vehicles on the road, according to BYU senior Caroline Sorensen, the team's driver.
Nonetheless, she said, the project "shows us the potential for gas mileage."
As the second team from BYU to compete in the SAE contest, this year's group had the advantage of using last year's design, which also placed second with 1,100 mpg, as a starting point. The seven-member team spent 40 weeks decreasing the vehicle's weight and improving the engine and the wheels to increase fuel efficiency and decrease friction.
The new version weighed 99 pounds and was just large enough to fit a single, relatively small driver. The team shaved 22 pounds from the old design by, among other things, refitting the engine with a lightweight starter made from the motor on a model airplane, Wardell said.
The need for precision while designing the car is ultimately what attracted Wardell, who hopes to go into project management after completing his education, he said.
"You couldn't just make a bulky thing and have it power its way through," Wardell said.
The project also provided a overview of current issues facing the automotive industry's efforts to improve vehicles' fuel efficiency, Wardell said, especially for the two members of the team who have found work with Ford.
The team built its car for a special capstone class with Jerry Bowman, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at BYU. The students had to apply in advance and commit to working on the project for at least three hours a day.
He has already selected eight students to work on remodeling the vehicle for the competition next year. One day, he would like to see BYU break the world super-mileage record — a bar currently set at more than 11,000 mpg.