Tucked tightly into their self-built prototype vehicles, drivers slid on sunglasses, adjusted helmets took deep breaths Sunday morning before their last chance for a qualifying run.

With only had only three hours left to compete in the prototype category of Shell* Eco-marathon’s race for extreme energy efficiency, students had to make this time around the downtown Houston track count.

Inside a bustling paddock area, a college team from Guatemala struggled to fix a sticky clutch on its green ethanol-powered streamliner after a long weekend of fits and starts.

The Universidad del Valle de Guatemala students traveled more than 1,000 miles – the distance some Eco-marathon prototypes traveled on the equivalent on one gallon of gas — to take part in the annual competition.

A logistics company offered to send their vehicle for free this year, but engineering teacher Andres Hernandez said the school spent more than $4,000 on shipping costs last year and couldn’t afford to send it home.

“We had to leave it here,” Hernandez said.

Some student teams used crates to drive or ship their vehicles to Houston for the annual Shell Eco-marathon race for fuel efficiency. Photo courtesy of Eco-marathon.

Some student teams used crates to drive or ship their vehicles to Houston for the annual Shell Eco-marathon race for fuel efficiency. Photo courtesy Shell Eco-marathon.

Shipping is an extra expense for a team that regularly spends $10,000 to build a prototype from scratch, he said. That’s because of pricier parts in the Latin American country, he said.

“Manufacturing and materials are more expensive because we have to import everything,” Hernandez said.

Shell officials and student teams only reported a handful of shipping snafus—an engine stuck in customs and missing boxes of tools here and there. A team from Alaska in the past designed their vehicle to fit in airplane carry-on luggage, according to Eco-marathon Technical Director Norman Koch.

But many teams in the continental United States and neighboring countries found it easier and cheaper to drive team members, vehicles and tools to Houston. For one Canadian student team, it took nearly two days of non-stop pavement time to arrive at the competition.

While wheeling out their shiny white and green battery-powered UrbanConcept vehicle to the track Sunday afternoon, the Université de Sherbrook engineering seniors threw out a ballpark figure for entire project: $100,000.

That’s why the cowboy hat-wearing students were nervous about making the roughly 1,700-mile trek from Québec—even with a traveling stipend, said Sherbrooke senior Patrick Dubois. The team spent a day packing to make sure nothing would move.

“We had get down anyway, so having a trailer behind us wasn’t that much different as an expense,” Dubois said. “Every fuel stop—every, like, three hours—we would open the trailer and make sure everything was in its place.”

 

*Shell is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains authority over content.