Cal Super Mileage Vehicle team builds car, plans for future

Tamara Katoni/Staff

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To an outsider, the Shell Eco-marathon might seem strange — cars, built by college and high school students, travel at a leisurely 15 mph around a park in downtown Houston and can stop after running about six miles.

But in this competition, the cars aren’t racing each other, they’re racing the tank — some teams aiming to create a vehicle efficient enough to complete two Indy 500s on a single gallon of gas.

The marathon pushes students to create vehicles that can run for miles on practically vapors, a challenge once again taken on by the Cal Super Mileage Vehicle team, a group of UC Berkeley students that designs and builds hyper-fuel-efficient cars. This year, the competition will be held April 25 to 27.

For the team, this year is far more about building a future than building a car. Past team members left without documenting their work or recruiting new members, making it hard for the team to maintain its successful streak from the early 2000s, according to senior Milton Sanchez. The team produced a car rated at more than 1,000 miles per gallon in 2002, placing well in the annual SAE Supermileage Competition.

The team members haven’t seen the same success as of late, so they’re changing their strategy. Last year, CalSMV didn’t produce a car, and the year before, its completed car didn’t finish the marathon.

“We’re trying to keep everything simple this year,” said team lead and UC Berkeley junior Rajith Jayaratne.

Almost every weekend, team members travel to Richmond Field Station, where they spend hours building the vehicle from the ground up. The final car might have a peanut-shaped body that hides a tricycle-like wheel arrangement, with two wheels in the front and one in the back, making the proposed product look like an elongated space pod.

Months of planning and construction might culminate in a run lasting little over an hour, hardly ideal for the team member jammed in the hot, cramped driver’s seat.

The team hopes to build a car efficient enough to run about 1,000 miles — roughly the distance from San Diego to Portland — on a single gallon of gas, according to Jayaratne. Last year, the team that won the Shell competition achieved more than 3,500 miles per gallon.

Although the team is dominated by engineering students, the only prerequisite to join is to “like cars,” according to senior Shensen Wang, a molecular and cell biology major.

“You don’t have to be a mechanical engineer — you just need a drive to learn,” Jayaratne said.

New members are often handed responsibilities that they wouldn’t get at other, bigger campus vehicle teams, according to freshman Andy Ficek, as CalSMV has only 10 active members.

Currently, the team is working on the engine and steering system and finishing the base frame it started designing last semester. Afterward, the team members have to piece together the transmission and electrical systems before building the final enclosure.

But building the car and participating in the Shell competition are secondary to building a strong team for future competitions and passing down the knowledge they gain this year.

“We’re going to start over with a simple design and document everything,” Sanchez said. “After we get a working car, we can reach for the stars.”

Contact Sahil Chinoy at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @sahilchinoy_dc.