UMass Amherst Students Take First in U.S. Supermileage Contest with Custom-Designed Car

AMHERST, Mass. - Ever wish your car got better mileage? How about 612 miles per gallon? That’s exactly the mileage attained by a car designed by a group of six University of Massachusetts mechanical engineering students this past academic year. Led by professor Ian Grosse, the team took top honors at the National Supermileage Design Competition held in Marshall, Mich., May 30-31. The UMass vehicle placed first in the U.S. and third worldwide. This was the University’s third year in the international collegiate competition, which is sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineering.

The 110-pound supermileage vehicle, dubbed "The Super," is long and narrow, and about the size of a kayak. The stock engine is modified to take advantage of the more fuel efficient Honda motorcycle overhead cam and carburetor. The three-wheeled car is enclosed in an aerodynamic, two-piece fiberglass shell, in the University’s maroon-and-white colors. Four separate Plexiglas windshields are molded into the top shell for visibility. Pro Tech Armored Products in Pittsfield, Mass., donated materials and helped the students build the shell that they designed. Attention to detail is so great that the side-view mirrors are located inside the car, to reduce "drag." Students began designing the vehicle early last fall, and tested miniature models of the car in the University’s wind tunnel lab.

You wouldn’t drive this car on the highway, or even in residential areas, Grosse cautions. "The Super" is designed to go no faster than about 35 miles an hour -- higher speed would create too much aerodynamic drag. The car’s fuel efficiency depends on an accelerate-and-coast pattern, which periodically slows the car to five miles an hour.

All 25 teams participating with the competition were given a three-horsepower, single-cylinder engine: "Essentially, a lawnmower engine," says Grosse. And they were required to meet certain safety standards, such as the construction of a firewall between the driver and the engine. But beyond that, they had complete freedom in their vehicle’s design, including the option of making significant modifications to the stock engine. Competitors drove a 9.6-mile course, on an oval track.

The UMass student design team was led by James Seamans, and included Tim Bosland, Matt DeRemer, Basil Kwan, Andy Leung, and Sam Rulli, all of whom will be seniors at the University next fall.

"The students have to bring together all the engineering knowledge and theory that they’ve learned in the classroom, and apply it," says Grosse. "You have to get the calculations correct. You just can’t wing it."