Pictures: Millennials Test Cute, Efficient Cars of the Future

At Shell Eco-marathon Americas, more than a thousand students vie to see who can build a car that runs on the least amount of fuel.

On the streets of Motor City, where horse-and-buggies made way more than a century ago for Henry Ford’s “quadricycle,” a new generation of innovators—many still teenagers—recently test drove possible cars of the future.

For ultimate fuel efficiency, the millennials created low-slung roadsters made of lightweight plastic or carbon fiber. Some opted for boxier mini versions of the 1960s Volkswagen bus, complete with peace stickers, surf boards, or “Why Not” license plates.

The cars are not ready for showrooms anytime soon, but their performance would likely impress even Ford or Tesla founder Elon Musk.

The top gasoline-fueled entry at this year’s Shell Eco-marathon Americas, which ended Sunday in Detroit, achieved the equivalent of 3,421 miles per gallon. On the final run, the University of Toronto swept first place from rival Canadian team, Quebec’s Universite Laval, which had prevailed in five of the six prior years.

More than 1,000 students from 113 high schools and universities in five countries—United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Guatemala—competed to see who could build a car that could go the farthest on the least amount of fuel.

Though some aren’t old enough to drive, they enrolled in classes or joined clubs to build futuristic, three-wheeled “prototypes” or more practical, four-wheeled “urban concept” cars. They could pick one of seven power sources: gasoline, batteries, diesel, ethanol, hydrogen, compressed natural gas, or gas-to-liquid.

“We’ve been doing this after school three times a week,” says Harry Teodosio, 17, a junior at James B. Dudley High School in Greensboro, N.C., who did the wiring for his ethanol-fueled car. He says his team didn’t necessarily aim to win: “The goal is basically to finish.”

The teams have to pass 11 inspections—including weight, braking, visibility, turning radius—before they can hit the track, where they need to complete seven laps totaling nearly seven miles.

For some, the competition was about more than cars. Mentoring was University of Houston senior Robert Guerra’s reason for enlisting teens at Elsik High School in Houston, Texas, where 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

“Most of these kids were lost before this project came along,” says Guerra, 25, an engineering major who is the first in his family to attend college. He spent weekends and after-school hours working with the students to show them academic possibilities beyond high school. Elsik team captain Jonathan Garcia, 17, a senior, says he’ll enroll in community college after graduation.

While many students received school or corporate funding for their projects, they also did fundraising. “We sell candy and Krispy Kreme donuts around the school,” says Paul Maitner, a senior at Newburgh Free Academy in New York, which entered three vehicles.

“Our ultimate goal in building these vehicles is making them as light as possible,” says Maitner, adding he hopes someday to help “reshape the industry” by making hybrids that are cheaper and go farther on a single charge.

“Our inspiration comes from our teacher. He’s a hippie from the '60s, or so he claims,” says Anastaysia Williams, a senior at Hargrave High School in Huffman, Texas, referring to the colorful Scooby Doo-like mini-bus with a “hippie power” sticker. Her team sported tie-dyed T-shirts.

“We’re a completely open team” that shares experiences with others, says Jacob Rigelman, a junior engineering student at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, who plans to intern this summer at spacecraft-maker Space X, also founded by Musk.

This spirit of sharing prevailed at Shell’s Eco-marathon, which has run for 30 years in Europe and since 2007 in the Americas. This is the first year in Detroit, where it will also be held the next two years.

“You see other people’s solutions,” says Andrew Markham, a senior engineering student at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He says his team built its car just for fun, not for academic credit. He says Rice’s entry has changed over time. When he was a freshman, it was mostly powered by solar panels that hovered over the car as a roof.

“We’re sort of being phased out of the competition,” he says, noting that Eco-marathon now limits the size of solar panels and will not allow them at all next year.

Solar "is not an energy source automakers are seriously considering,” says Pamela Rosen, general manager of Shell Eco-marathon Americas. She says the annual competition acts as a “beta testing ground for automakers.”

Some of the teams contended with broken parts, delayed deliveries or other mishaps—not unlike Ford, who in 1896 found that his car couldn’t squeeze through the shed door behind his home at 56 Bagley Avenue. So he used an axe to widen the door.

Students say the competition, despite bumps in the road, was fun. Paul Haberek, who soon graduates from Cicero North Syracuse High School in New York and plans to study at Rochester Institute of Technology, says it helped him deal with senioritis.

Unlike classes, he says it’s not something he has to do: “This is what I want to do. This is my passion.”