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Future Wheels

The race to build a 100mpg car

Story by John Thompson

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Craig Henderson ('80) shows off the undulating curves of his Avion, an ultra-fuel-efficient car he built with Bill Green ('79) | Photo by Martin Waidelich
Craig Henderson ('80)and his dog, Jazz, take a break after driving around rural Whatcom County in the Avion, which can get around 100 mpg. | Photo by Martin Waidelich
Craig Henderson ('80) with a model of Avion II, which he and his partner, Bill Green ('79) hope to have ready to compete in the Progressive Automotive X-Prize later in 2009. | Photo by Martin Waidelich
The next generation of the Avion is in the works in the North Bellingham shop of Craig Henderson ('80). | Photo by Martin Waidelich
Student Trevor Wunn works out an equation on a broken down pizza box during a weekly gathering of students working on the Vehicle Research Institute's entry in the Progressive Automotive X-Prize. | Photo by Rachel Bayne
Student Tyler Sabin sculpts a mold for a roll bar during a work party for students building Viking 45, the Vehicle Research Institute's entry in the Progressive Automotive X-Prize. | Photo by Rachel Bayne
VRI Director and Associate Professor of Engineering Technology Eric Leonhardt (’95) works with student Leif Olsen. | Photo by Rachel Bayne
Jonathon Ide and Leif Olsen lower a power plant into a car body during a weekly gathering of students working on Viking 45, the Vehicle Research Institute's entry in the Progressive Automotive X-Prize. | Photo by Rachel Bayne

Sidebar: Inside the Avion

Inside the Avion

Sidebar: Inside the Viking 45

Inside the Viking 45

As the world continues to wrestle with greenhouse-gas emissions and a staggering dependence on oil, a pair of local teams – one made up of WWU students and the other helmed by a pair of alums – are competing in a $10 million worldwide contest to build a market-ready car that gets 100 miles per gallon.

Western’s student team, part of the Engineering Technology Department’s pioneering Vehicle Research Institute, is one of only three university-sponsored teams worldwide competing in the Progressive Automotive X-Prize. The others are Cornell University and a polytechnic university in Helsinki.

Then there’s a team of two VRI alums, whose futuristic two-seater has already proven 100 mpg is a realistic goal.

The goal of the competition is to bring together the most innovative minds in the automotive industry to upend what we believe is possible when it comes to fuel efficiency. The X-Prize isn’t about building a toy for eccentric billionaires. The winner of the X-Prize crown will be a super-fuel-efficient vehicle safe enough, functional enough and cheap enough to attract mass-market car buyers.

Just because we haven’t yet seen such a car out of the automotive industry doesn’t mean it can’t be done, says Tyler Sabin, 24, who’s helping to build Viking 45, the gas-electric hybrid that will be the Vehicle Research Institute’s entry into the competition.

“If undergraduate guys like us can make a 100-mpg car, the big guys have no excuse,” says Sabin, a junior from Renton.

In a way, the X-Prize competition was made for the VRI, whose students have built dozens of alternative-fueled vehicles for competitions and road races.

But this competition is drawing students from across campus, says VRI Director and Associate Professor of Engineering Technology Eric Leonhardt (’95).

“Not only do we have the students working on the actual vehicle, but we’ve involved students from the College of Business and Economics to work on the team’s business plan and on marketing, and we’ve worked with the Industrial Design program on coming up with a look for the vehicle,” Leonhardt says. “The X-Prize is an incredible opportunity for the students involved on the team and for WWU as a whole.”

Brent Wise, the student leader of the X-Prize team, says the contest is more than a great opportunity for student auto-makers. It affords the chance for a rapid leap in the development of highly fuel-efficient vehicles.

“Hopefully these teams will come together with their technology and create something better than any of them could have done alone,” says Wise, a junior from Lake Stevens. “Even if they don’t win the prize, I hope the teams continue pursuing the technology and innovations they are bringing to this competition so that one day soon I might see their ideas in my driveway.”

Competitors range from India’s giant Tata Motors to small one- or two-person operations, such as that of the Avion, the other Bellingham team made up of Craig Henderson (’80) and Bill Green (’79).

But don’t underestimate the small, two-person operation. The Avion, a 1,400-pound, cherry-red, teardrop-shaped blur that looks like something out of Speed Racer, owns the Guinness World Record for gas mileage, having gone 1,700 miles from Mexico to Canada at an average of 103.7 miles per gallon, according to the folks at Guinness.

The days of crawling over cars at the VRI as an undergrad in the late ’70s set a course for both Henderson and Green that propelled them into their careers: Henderson as the owner of Bullfrog Boats, a Bellingham-based manufacturer of dinghies and small boats, and Green as an associate professor of Industrial Design at Virginia Tech.

“I came to Western thinking I was going to graduate and become a biology teacher, but as I got into the VRI, I knew I had found a home. I went from having to study to wanting to study – they used to have to kick us out of the garage at night, but most of us would just sneak back in and keep working,” Henderson says with a laugh.

“The faculty made it an incredible experience, and their knowledge and ability to impart that knowledge was amazing,” he says. “And they were incredibly hands on. I remember participating in a car rally to Detroit with Clyde Hackler, the department chair, and Dr. (Michael) Seal (’66), the VRI’s founder. They were always there, always around, because they loved it as much as we did.”

That same foundation of knowledge gleaned from hours under the hood at the VRI led years later to the Avion.

“I think we could win the X-Prize,” says Henderson. “And if we don’t, we’re sure going to have fun and stir things up, and see how it goes.”

The reality is, both teams may be long shots to win the competition. Both Leonhardt and Henderson agree that the current X-Prize rules favor battery-powered cars over hybrids like Viking 45 or super-efficient non-hybrids like the Avion. But that won’t stop them from competing – and for lobbying to level the playing field before the first major judging events in September.

“The thing is, you have to use electricity to recharge those batteries,” says Leonhardt. “And where is that electricity coming from? Back East, probably a coal-fired power plant. In most parts of the country, our hybrid is cleaner than any electric car.”

Henderson hopes the new version of the Avion will be ready when the inaugural events begin this summer in New York City; the competition will include a series of race stages in 2010 starting on the East Coast and working west, testing each car’s fuel efficiency, speed and emissions. If the new version of the Avion isn’t finished, Henderson says he’ll race the current world-record holder.

“We hope to launch a business selling the new version of the Avion as a kit car, and winning the X-Prize would be a great step in that regard,” he says. “If nothing else, it will be fabulous exposure.”

And when he gets there, Henderson will know the competition well. The body molds used to build Viking 45, the VRI X-Prize car, were built 25 years ago by a fresh-faced undergrad named Craig Henderson.

“I’ve always said the most valuable things built at the VRI are its graduates,” says Henderson. “It’s a club you never really lose your membership in.”