Ryan Chartrand

In the day and age in which car dealers exclaim over the efficiency of an automobile that gets 40 miles per gallon, the Cal Poly Supermileage Team will sit back and laugh at their enthusiasm.

After all, the team just built a car that gets 2,752.3 miles per gallon. No, that’s not a typo.

The number was good enough to win Cal Poly a silver medal at the 2008 Shell Eco-Marathon Americas competition.

The competition, which pits university students from around the world in designing high-mileage cars, has been held annually since 2007. The Cal Poly team won gold in 2007 with a car that ran 1,902.7 miles per gallon.

The 2008 car, called the “Black Widow,” is the same 92-pound car from 2007, with improvements including a new top and hardware.

The club was started in 2004 by a group of four engineering students.

David Ulrich, a founding member and this year’s team manager, said the club gave students interested in cars something to do besides race or off-road them.

“The whole energy and gas situation in the U.S. is huge, so it just seemed appropriate to start a new club and do something we were interested in that was pertinent to today,” he said.

The club is a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers and receives funding in the form of Individual Retirement Accounts. It also receives money through sponsors like Edwards Air Force Base and Lewcott Corporation.

The Black Widow is composed primarily of carbon fiber and lies very low to the ground in order to be more aerodynamic. In fact, it’s so low that the driver must lie down on his or her back, feet forward, to fit into the car.

“The minimum weight requirement in the Shell competition for the driver of the vehicle is 110 pounds. The closer you get to that the better,” Ulrich said. Cal Poly’s driver, club member Kevin Yang, is 125 pounds.

Obviously, this car is not meant for the road. When asked how designing a car unfit to drive on even the slowest highway will help the United States’ fuel consumption problems, Ulrich explained, “What we’re doing is looking at each part of the vehicle and trying to optimize it. (Car companies) can’t use the components we use now, such as bike and go-cart parts, but we’ll have a better idea of what to look for when optimizing a road-ready vehicle.”

Though the team has made significant progress in the past few years, team member and mechanical engineering senior Thomas Heckel is pensive about the future. With all remaining original members graduating in June, Heckel can only hope new members keep the club alive.

“It takes a lot of time and energy to keep going,” he said. “I hope people continue working on the car and developing it so we can continue to do well and have our school represented in these competitions.”

Next year’s team manager, mechanical engineering sophomore Wei Kyi, hopes to do just that.

“I joined the team two quarters ago and it’s been a great hands-on learning experience,” he said. “You learn a lot they just don’t teach you in school.”

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