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The Vagabond is built from wood and rattan (Photograph courtesy Shell)

Wooden Electric Car Steals Limelight at Shell Eco-Marathon Asia

An electric car designed by students from Universiti Sains Malaysia stood out among 119 teams competing in the Asian leg of Eco-marathon, an annual fuel efficiency competition, for its unique choice of body material: plywood.

“We chose to use wood because it’s strong and biodegradable,” said manager of Team USM-EVT, David Chew, when met at their paddock on July 6.

The 24-year-old said his team had experimented with conventional fiberglass in 2010. While the material is easier to shape and lighter than wood, Chew said fiberglass is also more expensive and hazardous.

“It’s stinky and not biodegradable. Some of us developed [rashes] after handling it…We don’t want to harm ourselves,” the  final-year mechanical engineering student said.

He added that they began designing the vehicle around a year ago and had engaged a carpenter to teach them how to shape the wood.

Apart from that, their wooden electric car also featured a rattan chair. Similar to bamboo, rattan is sturdy and light. It is commonly used to make furniture and baskets in tropical regions.

“We bought [the chair] for only 20 ringgit ($6.30),” said Chew, who plans to invest his career in electric drive system and wireless power transfer when he graduates in October.

When asked if it was comfortable to drive in the rattan seat, he quipped that it was quite cozy and very “well-ventilated”.

He said the car can achieve a maximum speed of 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour) but they have capped the speed at 50 kilometers per hour (31 mph) to comply with the race’s safety regulations.

Team USM-EVT’s vehicle is currently ranked third in the Urban Concept plug-in battery category, achieving the best result of 45km/kWh (28 m/kWh) after three test runs today.

Shell* Eco-marathon Asia is being held for the third time at the Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia from July 4 to 7. Malaysia has the largest representation with 28 teams, followed by 18 from Indonesia, 12 from Thailand and 11 from India. Five new regions — Lebanon, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and South Korea — are participating for the first time.

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.