Driving Coast to Coast on a Single Gallon of Gas

The next time you hear someone arguing about whose car is more fuel-efficient, tell them about Aleksey Checkeye. On a single gallon the car she drives could make the trip from New York to Los Angeles (given a flat road for the duration) with fuel to spare. It gets 3014 miles per gallon.

Checkeye, a mechanical engineering student, was in the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Club at Penn State Behrend which won this summer’s International Supermileage Challenge. She was also the team’s driver.

Her journey began before she got to college. “I’ve been a gear head since I was little,” she says. She spent much of her youth in the garage with her father helping him tinker with the car. So when, as a freshman, she attended the school’s “Club Showcase,” she was instantly drawn to the SAE club and the car they had with them, a sleek teardrop of carbon fiber. “I saw the car displayed and thought ‘Wow, this is something I would be interested in.’”

Before she left the club’s booth they’d asked her to join, and to become the club driver to boot. “I think, honestly, they were glad to see a young eager, and female, freshman—a fresh face and someone who could fit in the car.” She would go on to become the vice president of the club, and, of course, to drive the car for the big win.

For the contest, the SAE gives teams a stock eight horsepower Briggs and Stratton Engine. Beyond that—within certain rules—the clubs can design and build anything they dream up. Then, in the summer, the cars head to the Eaton Proving Grounds in Michigan to put their efficiency to the test.

Over the years the Behrend car has gotten smaller and smaller, so Checkeye’s size came in useful. “I’m tiny,” she says. In fact, the competition requires drivers to weigh 130 pounds. So Checkeye takes bags of lead beads with her in the car. “We call them lead babies.”

The race itself is the hardest part of her job. Drivers complete six laps around the mile-and-a-half track, which takes about half an hour, before they can emerge. Not only was Checkeye forced to stay in an awkward position on firm carbon fiber, the temperatures surged past 100 degrees. Then, after a stretch and some water, she’d be sealed up in the car for the next six laps.

On top of the physical discomfort there’s the issue of being able to see where she’s going. “It’s definitely important to note how poor the visibility is from these cars. If it were better, I would feel more confident flying around the track.” Since the race is about efficiency, not speed, teams send their cars out onto the track anytime during the competition. That can mean having 10 cars to dodge while lying still and staring out of a tiny slit.

For the first few years, that slit was “some kind of plastic that they had peeled off a big roll of something.” The club tried to produce a better windshield for this years’ competition but didn’t manage it. “It’s really hard to bend it to fit this teardrop shape. We tried to make it with a homemade oven, pushing plastic down a foam mold. It all ended in failure.” So Checkeye was stuck with the same poor visibility. “It’s been like a kaleidoscope.”

Most of the teams use a “burn and coast” driving strategy to get their mileage numbers up. “I probably use the throttle only once or twice each lap, for a six or seven seconds increment,” says Checkeye. Other teams hit the throttle six or seven times a lap, but keep the duration under two seconds. “We’re not sure what’s better or worse. But if you look at the scoreboard, I’m sure we’re doing something right.”

However great the win, it was the experience of working with her team that thrilled Checkeye even more. “Engineers get a bad rap for being awkward, but everyone brought such great enthusiasm,” she says. “I’ve never felt so supported by a group.”
Michael Abrams is a technology writer based in New Jersey.
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