Supermileage Team Travels 1,020 Miles on One Gallon of Gas

The longest six minutes of Cody Colpo’s summer likely came on Friday, June 6, the final day of the Society of Automotive Engineers’ International Supermileage Challenge. He was watching a timer, waiting for a carbon-fiber test car to clear the far side of the track at the Eaton Corporation’s Marshall Proving Grounds.

Supermileage is a slow-motion race: Drivers try to keep the vehicles at a fuel-efficient 15.1 mph. For the crew – Colpo, a senior from Evans City, is captain of the team at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College – it’s a nerve-wracking wait.

“It takes about six minutes to complete a lap,” he said. “And for five and a half of that, you can’t even see the car. It can make you a little crazy.”

The June 6 test runs took a bit longer. High temperatures at the Eaton track caused problems with several cars, including Penn State Behrend’s. Tires fell off. The carbon fiber started to melt.

“None of the teams performed as well as they had hoped,” Colpo said.

Canada’s Université Laval won the challenge, getting 1,145 miles from a single gallon of gas. The Penn State Behrend team, which won the competition in 2012 and 2013, finished fifth, with 1,020 mpg.

“We think the heat had something to do with that,” Colpo said. “It was close to 100 degrees on the track today. We’d never really tested the engine in those kinds of conditions. Most of our testing and tuning was done in the evenings, after classes, when it was cooler.”

Driver Katie Burbules tests the Penn State Behrend Supermileage vehicle.Katie Burbules, a senior from Erie, drove the car, as she had in 2013. The heat was just one challenge, she said.

“It isn’t comfortable in there,” she said. “This vehicle isn’t built for that. It sits about an inch off the ground. When you go over a crack on that track, you feel it.”

She couldn’t hear much. The car’s engine was just inches behind her head. She’d ignite it and then coast, staying as close as possible to that 15.1 mph goal. For six laps she did that – ignition, coast, ignition, coast, ignition, coast – while the others stood with their timers, fingers crossed.

Chad Rudinski, a senior from Cogan Station, worried about the engine. He had stripped it down, swapping in a ring of aluminum and a cast-iron core. That made it lighter and, in theory, more efficient: The stock part that every team began with – a 1-hp Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine – was instead producing 1.2-hp.

It wasn’t enough. Twenty-nine university teams competed at this year’s Supermileage Challenge, representing schools in Mexico, India, Venezuela and across the United States. None matched the fuel-efficiency that Penn State Behrend recorded in 2012 or 2013.

“The top five teams were extremely close this year,” said Ralph Ford, associate dean for industry and external relations and director of the School of Engineering at Penn State Behrend. “Our students have shown once again that they are capable of competing at the highest levels. They and their adviser, Rich Englund, have much to be proud of.”

Colpo and the others will channel that the way they always have: In the shop, working on the car. Team members will inspect and test the components this week, trying to determine what went wrong on the Eaton track. The data they get from that will influence the design of the next car, which began to take shape the moment the last model started its long first lap around the track.