Student Built Fuel-Efficient Car Uses Lawnmower Engine

A student team from the University of Michigan believes it has found the answer to ultimate fuel-efficiency – using a lawnmower engine.

The team’s goal is to build a one-person vehicle that can get 3,300 miles per gallon. To put that in perspective, the average miles per gallon level in the U.S is around 23, according to figures released in 2009.


image via University of Michigan

The team will test their lawnmower-powered car at the SAE International Supermileage Challenge, in Marshall, Mich. this summer. However, their design has already been singled out. Earlier this year the company won the $20,000 second prize in the Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge and it has since been chosen to spend the next term as a tenant in the University of Michigan’s student business incubator, known as TechArb.

“Fuel efficiency is one of those issues prevalent in society today,” chief engineer and co-founder Brett Merkel, said in a statement. “The technology we’re coming up with can have far-reaching effects, and be implemented in just a few years.”

Merkel, a senior in mechanical engineering, said their fuel injection system could help lower the price of an engine for single-person vehicles such as motorcycles and mopeds by 70 percent, thus having a significant knock-on effect on emission levels.

“Since those single-person vehicles are the primary mode of transportation in many third-world countries, it could have a resounding impact on emissions,” said Merkel.

To construct their vehicle, the team used a requirements-based design approach, breaking down the major components of the car — chassis, engine and body — and assigning those parts to different groups within the team.

According to the team’s faculty adviser and professor of engineering practice Harvey Bell, requirements-based design is a popular design model in industry but most students are exposed to the concept only later in their education.

Bell, who is also co-director of the Multidisciplinary Design Program and has forty years experience in the auto industry, said: “The role that engineers serve in society is to create products and services that are beneficial to society. And the operative word there is create. One of the challenges of an educational institution is to give students a chance to be creative, and these student teams do that.”

The SAE competition will be held June 7-8 at the Eaton Corporation Marshall Proving Grounds in Marshall, Michigan. Under the terms of the challenge the team must design and construct a single-person, fuel-efficient vehicle with a small four-stroke engine. At the competition the team’s ambition is to beat the North American record for fuel efficiency, currently clocked at 3,169 miles per gallon.

The team has high hopes for its design and have already begun a start-up called PicoSpray based around the vehicle’s fuel injection system, which was designed by mechanical engineering student and team member Lihang Nong.

The student team has received funding from local companies like Ford Research & Design, NSK Motion & Control and Falcon Motorsports.

“We are taking something that is in your backyard and turning it into something that’s sleek, modern and high-performance,” Laura Pillari, co-founder of the team, said.


Paul Willis has been journalist for a decade. Starting out in Northern England, from where he hails, he worked as a reporter on regional papers before graduating to the cut-throat world of London print media. On the way he spent a year as a correspondent in East Africa, writing about election fraud, drought and an Ethiopian version of American Idol. Since moving to America three years ago he has worked as a freelancer, working for and major newspapers in Britain, Australia and North America. He writes on subjects as diverse as travel, media ethics and human evolution. He lives in New York where, in spite of the car fumes and the sometimes eccentric driving habits of the yellow cabs, he rides his bike everywhere.

1 Comment

  • Reply July 7, 2012

    Wade Mealing

    So much hype, so little information available.

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