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July 17, 2018 37 mins

Keywords:  innovation; fuel efficiency innovation


Competing for Fuel Efficiency Innovation

There’s been an explosion of innovation competitions in recent years.  They highlight the fact that innovation can come from non-obvious sources.   These competitions bring together smart people – usually industry outsiders - to tackle a problem.   The annual Shell Eco-marathon Americas took place this year in Sonoma, California.  In today’s show I welcome three members of the Duke Electric Vehicles team from Duke University.  They share their experience of competing for fuel efficiency innovation.


The Shell Eco-marathon Americas draws teams of high school and college students from North, Central, and South America.  The challenge is to create the most fuel-efficient car. The Duke Electric Vehicles team took first place in three categories.  On the track, they won awards in hydrogen fuel cell and electric prototypes. Off track, they won in technical innovation. Shomik Verma, Gerry Chen, and Patrick Grady give a glimpse of the competition and their road to victory.


The Race is On

The team starts in August and works on the car throughout the school year.  Amid academic studies and other obligations, students devote evenings and weekends to making the car.  They spend the first semester designing. The second semester, they build and test the car. The Duke Electric Vehicle team built a small, oblong 50-pound car in which the driver has to lie flat.  The car gets an estimated 12,000 miles per gallon. The secret to their fuel efficiency innovation: a super capacitor in the hydrogen powertrain. Now that the team has tasted victory, they are not stopping.  This summer they are working on beating the Guinness World Record for the most fuel-efficient car.


Learning Innovation Hands-On

Students don’t often get to bridge the theoretical to the practical in school.  The competition offers the chance to put the classroom theory into practice.  At the competition, there was a unique level of cooperation among the teams – from borrowing tools to asking advice.  The focus on one problem, fuel efficiency, maximized the potential for innovative solutions. The team members sharpened essential skills of innovation - problem-solving, creativity and collaboration.  


Lessons Learned

  • Have determination and perseverance.
    • Shomik learned determination and to persevere through unexpected difficulties.  In his words, “It was really important for us to rely on team members and rely on the fact that we knew we did good work.”
  • Use a methodical, organized approach.
    • Gerry learned the importance of a methodical approach, being organized, and breaking things down into subcomponents.
  • Go back to basic theory for the solutions.
    • This was Patrick’s fourth year on the team and second as team president.  He learned many lessons through the years working on efficiency vehicles. One of the biggest was how to go back to basic theory.

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