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MIT Vehicle Design Summit Targeting 500MPG Equivalence (or Better)

Sketch of a concept solar car for the VDS. Image: Mitchell Joachim and William Lark.

Students from around the world are participating in the MIT Vehicle Design Summit (VDS) this summer to design and build vehicles based on integrating hydrogen fuel cells, photovoltaics, biofuels, and human power.

The VDS organizers winnowed through the pooled research recommendations of the participants to select five basic designs: fuel cell; biofuel; human/solar hybrid; retrofit; and Th!nk Car.

The Vehicle Design Summit has three key goals:

  1. Develop practical commuter vehicle designs with 500 mpg equivalence (or better) based on emerging technologies, in concert with collaborators in industry and academia;

  2. Aid in the creation of project-based, socially-conscious engineering curriculum for '06-'07; and

  3. Set the stage for a permanent international consortium focused on green transportation for India, China, and other countries with rapidly-expanding transportation infrastructures.

By the end of the Vehicle Design Summit, the cars created by the students, who have previously designed solar racecars for the World Solar Challenge (WSC) and super-mileage vehicles for the European Shell Eco-Marathon, will tour the country to bring attention to the social and technological issues surrounding alternative-powered vehicles.

An added goal for the program, which runs from 13 June to 13 August, is to lay a foundation for ongoing multidisciplinary transportation research involving all five MIT schools.

The students will work with industry and academia speakers and mentors to create the vehicles. Through a partnership with the MIT Media Lab’s Fab Lab, additional cars will be designed to be built at Fab Labs in Norway, Costa Rica, India, Ghana and South Africa.

The Fab Lab program, part of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, explores how information relates to physical representation. The Fab Lab’s partner organizations around the world are geared toward allowing ordinary people to design machines to improve the quality of their lives.

The VDS grew out of the experience of the World Solar Challenge (WSC), a solar-powered car race spanning 3,021 kilometers through central Australia from Darwin to Adelaide. (Earlier post.)

At its inception, many hoped that this race would produce vehicles that might one day be mass-produced for consumer use, enabling commuters to drive to work on the power of the sun. Instead, nearly all of the 30+ solar electric vehicles today are identical. The competition has favored design convergence on a single, race-specific vehicle too specialized for commuter use. Teams continue to enter the race, understandably, for the thrill of exceeding 70mph across Australia in a highly-optimized engineering marvel. But many of the top teams are wondering where the field will go next.

Tasked by the WSC organizers to envision a new rule set and direction for the race, the MIT Solar Electric Vehicle Team has chosen to converge all of its colleagues for an intense 9-week design summit aimed at in-depth exploration of alternative transportation technologies.

—VDS website

We hope to have an impact on not only the field of solar racing but the energy debate as well. Exploring both the socio-political and technical aspects of this work, we are excited to provide a space for students to lend a new voice to the global energy discussion.

—Robyn Allen, co-organizer

The participants will publish a technical manual at the conclusion of the summit and distribute their findings in the public domain.



GM won the first WSC if my memory serves me right with the Sunracer. So good things can come out from these races. The first races were Very diverse, all the cars looked different since no one knew the winning formula yet.
The frame was aluminum tubing the thickness of a beercan. The team that designed the car gave Roger Smith, CEO of GM at the time, confidence an electric car could be made. And someone made the choice to hire Aeroenvironment to get that top aerodynamics Paul McCready. and the electronics expert Allan Cocconi.
Smith is the CEO who started the Impact, later EV-1. After Smith and Stemple the rest were bean couters.
I'm sure someone can correct and expand on my version... I may have missed an engineering CEO or two prior to the beancounter take-over.
And they gave it all away to Toyota! The stockholders must get rid of the current management or they will lose all their money.

Sid Hoffman

If they want them to look like commuter cars instead of pancakes with bicycle wheels, then adopt a ruleset such as:

1) Must accomidate two human occupants of average size, such as having interior headroom of at least 35 inches, appropriate requirements for leg and hiproom, and use a conventional 3-point belt or an approved 5/6 point harness.
2) Must have externally accessible luggage area capable of holding two standard suitcases of 2x3x1 foot dimentions.
3) Must have accelleration of 0-45mph in at least 10 seconds or less.
4) Must have skidpad grip of at least 0.65g and do a standard lane change test at a minimum of 50mph. Both of these would give them at least SUV-level roadgoing performance.
5) If you want to get REAL real world, it must have a climate control system that holds the cabin temperature at a minium of 70 degrees and maximum of 90 degrees in ambient temperatures as low as 30 degrees and as high as 110 degrees.

If the cars can meet all of those, then they at least perform what a Honda Insight does, which is the closest thing out there to a "real" car that was designed to push the compromises in performance and comfort to the max while still actually selling to the public.

E Michael

Good points Mr. IPadula. Must be commercially viable.

shaun mann

don't forget about adding distributed dead weight to represent safety systems, minimum braking requirements, headlights, more dead weight for an audio system, comfy seats, a user interface identical to what people are currently trained to use, and your 2 people have to be of average commuter size


Real-world solar powered vehicles could be built today.


A Prius converted to PHEV use could have enough solar cells installed to provide up to 20 miles per day gasoline-free range per day (7000 miles per year). That would make a big dent in annual gasoline usage.


No guys, too much. What you are asking is like say ing that in 5 years CAFE has to be 50MPG. Not going to happen. Plus a solar car like to one you are proposing (starting from the pancake cars of today) will go about 5km a day even in the Mid summer NT sun.

The rules should ultimatley get there but we should start with next race two people per car. The one after add the aircon in (that maintains 22 - 25 C anything there are occupants) and slowly work your way from there.

The cool thing is that some interesting flow on vehicle engineering ideas might come out of it.

The Race must never nominally take more that 5 to 7 days. It should never last longer than a test cricket match (about the most long winded sport that people still get excited about).

I'm sure that in solar racing steps like these would be big enough to throw the cat amount the pignions just about every race




Sid's comments are very much in line with what we are doing here at VDS. As one of the participants, I can tell you that all but one of our concepts will seat two people and have room for their luggage. We also anticipate similar performance to current vehicles as well as good safety characteristics due to the use spaceframe construction. Not to rain on anyone's parade, but solar will never be a viable method for transportation. Getting energy for an electric car from an array at home is another story, but there will never be commercial solar cars. I've worked on them for quite awhile, and unless you want to seat one and have next to no ergonomics or storage space it's not an option. Other things we're working on here will be able to far exceed the efficiencies of current vehicles, and if put into mass production would be accesable for most of the industrialized world. The prototypes won't be cheap but that's b/c these parts aren't around yet in quantity. Your interest is most appreciated, and I hope you stay tuned for our final products this August. I think you may be surprised as to how useful these cars will be.


Best wishes to all involved.

Can someone comment on whether the 500 mpg target is on a standard drive cycle or at a constant speed? While I realize EPA cycles aren't presently reflective of real world usage, they do serve as a common benchmark, and I'd assume MIT is using some sort of standard.



I was given an article about the VDS and looked this one up on the net. Gang, all I can say is, "IT'S ABOUT TIME!". I teach at a high school in Maryland and am interested in starting some sort of high-mileage, street-legal vehicle competition at the high school level for my engineering design students. I know we won't hit 500MPG, but we will be shooting for well over 100 mpg and street-legal, so we have similar goals.
I applaud your efforts and will be checking back to see how it goes. Is there an official website?



I wish you would look at my cabin-scooter design on Detalidon.com It is not emerging technology, just do-able right now. (Open Source)

It's EV, but it should beat the 100mpg limit, possibly the 200mpg or higher, and get you to work dry and happy.

I'm estimating all that for under $6000 at higher production volumes. In low production kit form, under 10k.

Most people say it's pretty cool looking.

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