Detroit Teams Look to Innovation and the City’s Future

An inner city Detroit high school’s high-tech electric streamliner hit the Houston streets Saturday in a race for extreme energy efficiency. (See related photos: “Rare Look Inside Carmakers’ Drive for 55.”)

But unlike most futuristic vehicles competing in the annual Shell* Eco-marathon Americas competition this weekend, the battery-powered prototype tapped the latest smartphone technology to display battery life and collect data for future test runs.

Mentor and professional test engineer Paul Wright called this kind of innovation second nature for students of University of Detroit Jesuit High School, who engineered detachable steering wheels and Dr. Pepper-bottle pressurization systems. (Take the related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Cars and Fuel.”)

“With the young people we have here, they don’t know what previous generations thought was impossible,” said Wright, who later pointed out the Electric Motor City Cub’s iPhone speedometer application. “This is absolutely amazing, and they don’t think of it as anything out of the ordinary.”

The Shell Eco-marathon Americas competition is moving from Houston to Detroit next year, bringing thousands of student engineers to the heart of United States motor industry.

“For Shell to invest in Detroit is a signal of confidence in a scrappy city that has been through some hard times but is coming back strong,” said Niel Golightly, Shell Corp.’s vice president of external affairs. “As bad a rap as Detroit gets sometimes, it has a long history of innovation. That legacy is going to carry on, and we want to be there, be a part of it and help it along.”

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University of Detroit Jesuit High School team leader Jacob Byrd tinkers with the battery-powered Electric Motor City Cub prototype Saturday at the Shell Eco-marathon Americas competition. Photo courtesy Shell Eco-marathon.

Wright hopes the competition builds a new generation of workers with a knack for science and engineering.

“If we get more Michigan high schools involved, we are going to grow an employee base that’s important for bringing Michigan back from financial crisis,” he said. “If we’re going to rebuild Detroit, let the young people who will be living there in the future design it.”

Moving the competition to school’s backyard also frees up financial resources for the vehicles, said Wright, who got involved when his son competed in past competitions and still lends a helping hand. This year, more than a dozen students – aptly named Ignatian Ignition — engineered both gas- and battery-powered prototypes for the race.

“There’s not a kit for these cars—everything is built from scratch,” Wright said. “Students are designing parts. You’d be amazed at the quality of work they’ve done.”

Students of the inner-city school reflected on the renewed spirit of the city while making last-minute adjustments to their vehicles Friday night.

“Detroit is a blank slate,” said junior Zachary Lewandowski, who will likely go out of state for college but return to find a job.

Team leader Jacob Byrd, who must trade his maroon and white jumpsuit for University of Michigan colors next year, sees new young thinkers and talent returning to Detroit.

“It’s part of the whole revival of car companies and atmosphere in the city,” Byrd said.

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The University of Michigan UM Supermileage team makes last-minute adjustments to their Cypress II gas-powered prototype in their workstation Saturday at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. Photo courtesy of Shell Eco-marathon.

As the sunset on the energy city Friday, University of Michigan competitor John Rockwell and his team tested the breaks on their bright yellow Cypress II prototype, hoping to get 2,300 miles per gallon this year.

“I could imagine more auto industry involvement because the competition is going to be downtown,” Rockwell said. “Everyone is going to want to come down and watch.”

Moving the competition to Houston five years ago from California changed the energy of the event, said Ignacio Gonzalez, general manager for Shell Eco-marathon Americas.

“It was the first time in an urban environment with spectators—that really changed the ballgame,” Gonzalez said. “But we really wanted to move the journey to where the cars are being made and give Detroit a new layer of automotive innovation.”

A recent trip to the Motor City impressed Golightly, who remembers visiting the annual auto show at Detroit’s COBO Center as a kid.

“I can’t think of anything more appropriate than moving Shell Eco-marathon from the global capital of energy to the global capital of mobility,” he said.

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