Secrets for a 1,500-MPG Car Revealed

A student team at the recent NIWeek 2016 conference shared its insights into the design of an engine control system for a car that set a fuel efficiency record of more than 1,500 mpg.

The team from the Technical University of Denmark used a graphical programming language and an embedded industrial controller to create an engine control unit (ECU) that managed the car's ignition timing, fuel injection, starter motor, lights, and servo systems for the gears, along with the data logging capabilities.

"What they achieved is incredibly impressive," said Rhys Bowley, product marketing engineer for National Instruments' academic teams, a consultant for the student team. "People haven't been able to come anywhere near this record."

Indeed, the record, set at the 2015 Shell EcoMarathon Europe competition on a car powered by a 50 cc scooter engine, was 1,564 mpg. The next closest vehicle was less than half that. A separate vehicle in the 2016 event hit a mark of 1,216 mpg, but that was still more than 20% less than the record.

The team's achievement was made even more amazing by the fact that most of the students did not have backgrounds in electrical or software engineering. Led by mostly mechanical engineering students, the team employed LabVIEW graphical programming language to create the code for the ECU, the automatic transmission, the closed-loop injection control, and the data logging system. A CompactRIO FPGA-equipped industrial controller served as the hardware.

The graphical programming language was especially important, given that the team had little software expertise. "They couldn't have put together near as good a system using a text-based language," Bowley said. "They also might not have been able to incorporate an FPGA into the system, because that would have required Verilog (hardware description language) or VHDL."

At an NIWeek keynote speech, students told an audience of more than a thousand engineers that the team also faced one unexpected challenge: Two days before the competition in Amsterdam, an engine fire occurred, but the hardware survived. "After I brushed off the ashes, the hardware still functioned," noted Benjamin Hartz, a student at the Technical University of Denmark.

Team members also said that the hardware and software enabled them to make on-the-fly changes while they were at the event. By building a simple user interface to display data, they could accommodate variables, such as temperature, altitude, and road conditions.

"This gave them the visibility they needed at the event," Bowley told us. "And it didn't require a lot of low-level, deep expertise in existing text-based languages."

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 32 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

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