EcoCar team wins in Motor City

First-place win in Detroit qualifies UAlberta team for world championships in England.


The UAlberta EcoCar team's car, Alice, gets off the starting line during competition in Detroit.

A first-place victory for the U of A EcoCar Team at an international competition in Detroit has been sweetened with a berth at the world eco-car championships in England this summer.

The Faculty of Engineering team won top spot at the Shell Ecomarathon Americas with the hydrogen fuel cell car they designed and built. The win qualifies the team to compete at the Shell Ecomarathon Europe and the Drivers World Championship in London June 30–July 3.

“The team feels really good about it,” said team leader Nik Viktorov. “We had a few issues but the car performed well.”

The team was required to complete specific course using the least amount of energy possible. Final calculations haven't been performed yet but in previous years, with a different vehicle, the team has completed the course using the energy equivalent of 618 mpg (0.1 L/100 km).

This year the team's zero-emissions vehicle, dubbed Alice, failed on two of six attempts to complete the entire lap, but still ended up leaving the competition in the dust.

“We were the only team able to do one successful run—to complete the 10 laps—and we did that four times,” Viktorov added. “It’s very encouraging to see our car very reliably going round the track while other cars are being towed off.”

The urban concept - hydrogen category is considered the most challenging because of the complexity of hydrogen fuel cells. Teams in the category must design and build cars that are appealing to consumers. The vehicles are built with features like brake and signal lights, mirrors and windshield wipers.

The Faculty of Engineering group’s toughest competition came from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which made it to the track but did not finish. The only other team in the category was unable to pass a technical inspection and didn’t advance to the race course.

Going into the competition, the team had only conducted short test runs and were having issues with a power board, which provides power from the fuel cell to the rest of the vehicle. To address the problem, they sent a new circuit board to Detroit with the car, and once there, added electronic components.

“In Detroit we soldered all the components onto the new board and it worked perfectly.”

The win is a continuation of a string of victories for the team, following a year of intensive work on the car. An online crowdfunding campaign held for the team in March raised more than $11,000—thanks in no small part to the faculty’s Spirit of George Ford Endowment Fund, which contributed nearly half the amount through matching donations. The team also won a $2,000 prize for winning in Detroit, and Shell is paying the costs of flying a group of students and shipping Alice to the London competition.

But the team isn’t taking future successes for granted. Viktorov, a third-year chemical engineering co-op student, says they’ll be fine-tuning Alice before departing for London.

“London is going to be very interesting. We’re looking at making some efficiency improvements based on what we learned in Detroit and how the car ran. This was the first time we tested it for a very long period of time. We’ll hopefully shed some weight and better optimize the fuel cell—we’re not doing huge systematic changes but small changes here and there. We think we’ll be facing off against some very, very good teams, especially the European teams.”