Imagine a car that travels more than 12,000 miles per gallon! This is not a science-fiction writer's vision of fuel consumption in the far distant future. Rather, it shows the incredible achievement of the Eco-Marathon, an event that pits teams of students against one another in a competition to design and build the most fuel-efficient vehicle possible.


The Eco-Marathon has been held every year since 1939 by Shell, when it took place at a U.S.-based research lab as the result of a bet among the employees. The top gas mileage achieved that day was a respectable 50 mpg. Since then, the competition has since branched out into three geographic divisions – Eco-Marathon Americas, Eco-Marathon Europe and Eco-Marathon Asia, the latter held for the first time in February 2014. The most recent Eco-Marathon was hosted by Houston, Texas, from April 24 to 27. Although participants typically compete at auto racing tracks, in 2012 a limited number of events began taking place on urban streets.


Vehicles to be entered fall into 7 categories. They may be powered by traditional gasoline (petrol), diesel fuel, electricity, biofuels, autogas (liquefied petroleum gas), hydrogen fuel cells or solar cells.

They are further divided into the Prototype class (aimed solely at providing maximum fuel efficiency without regard to luxuries such as a headlights or a seat for the driver – although a floor is mandatory) and the UrbanConcept class (which focuses on passenger comfort and practicality as well).


Entrants are teams of students from high schools and universities all over the globe. These innovative engineers of the future are impressively young – the average age per team ranges from 23 down to just 15. This youngest group, dubbed ShopGirls, is the only all-female team in the competition to date.

What makes a winner?

The winning automobiles combine light weight (due to their small size and carefully chosen materials), low automobile drag and rolling resistance coefficients and high engine efficiency. These vehicles are not particularly cost-effective at the present time; their construction can cost tens of thousands of dollars and is generally co-sponsored by the designers' school and the industry at large. Nor do they meet standards of comfort, safety or speed for normal use. However, their fuel efficiency is remarkable, especially when compared with the booby prize listing in the EPA's 2014 fuel economy rankings – the Bugatti Veyron (this glamorous high-end sports car, one of the fastest vehicles in the world, gets a modest 10 miles per gallon.) By contrast, the record top performer in Eco-Marathon was the Swiss Pac-Car II, which achieved an incredible 12,665 mpg in 2005.

The goal

The Eco-Marathon serves as an occasion for high school and college students to exercise their creative and engineering abilities (as well as to have a great time). Beyond those short-term goals, the competition is intended to serve as an inspiration and an example to automobile manufacturers and other industrialists. And entrants take their mission very seriously. In addition to their fuel efficiency, some of the contest entries included seats made of vegetable-based leather and a shell composed of a blend of cellulose, flax, hemp and synthetic fiber.

Impact of Eco-Marathon

Automobile manufacturers can learn a lesson for the future from the competition's young participants: greater fuel economy is possible, using a variety of energy sources, both conventional and alternative. These same energy sources may have interesting applications in other fields, such as home climate control.

Laura Firszt originally wrote this story for

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