UPDATE: Is the Eco Racer a prototype?

Something is a little off.

Yesterday, I posted an update on the origins of the Eco Racer, and how I found out that my car might have been the same car Osaka Sangyo University built to race in the ENE-1 GP! I’m super excited to find the heritage of this machine! But, after doing some more research, I’m starting to think this might not be the same car at all. In fact, I think it’s something even more special. Is the Eco Racer a prototype?

The evidence

The image above was the biggest clue to the true origin of the Eco Racer. While all the cars that raced in the ENE-1 GP’s KV-1 class are similar to this one, this car and the car I have are a little different. Although both of the cars look exactly the same, the canopy in this car is a one-piece canopy. However, the canopy used in my car ends at the bulkhead for the engine compartment. The tail section is also it’s own separate piece.

Also, if you look closely at the racer in the 2013 picture, some of the internal structures are different. In my car, the steering linkages are placed lower than the top of the front wheels. In the pic from 2013, the linkages are higher than the tops of the wheels. The linkage geometry is also different.

The placement of the steering linkages in the 2013 picture looks like it could be a revision of the system from my car. The higher placement would make for a little more legroom, and it could also affect steering. With this and the one piece canopy in mind, you can see the difference between my car and the race car in this video from the 2014 ENE-1 GP at 12:58 and 22:10:

Other than these glaring differences, both cars are extremely similar in design. In fact, I believe the bodies could have been pulled from the same mold. Which begs the question:

What exactly do I have?

Two possible answers

There are two possible answers for the true origins of my car. The first answer is the most obvious: I have a proof-of-concept prototype that was tested and evaluated before the actual race car was built. In other words, I have the test mule for the ENE-1 GP racer, and not the actual car. While this is disappointing, it is also very intriguing. In most cases, prototypes like this are either destroyed or kept in a museum or private collection. Seeing as this car was kept by a private individual, this could very well be the case!

The second possibility is more exciting. In my last post I mentioned that I had possible video evidence of the car taken during the commemorative photo session for the inaugural ENE-1 GP in 2011. I found more videos of an extremely similar looking car at 04:28 thanks to the same source!:

The video in question shows the 1st Attack session for the KV-40 Class at the 2011 ENE-1 GP. In the timestamp above, a car with the same exact shape of the OSU car can be seen in still images, with less markings on the body than the later cars. Unfortunately I can’t find much else on the 2011 ENE-1 GP or this car. Could it be possible that this is my car? Do I actually have the KV-40 car from the 2011 ENE-1 GP? Who knows?

The likeliest scenario…and some answers

In all likelihood, I have a very early version of the KV-40 race car for testing purposes. A prototype for a prototype even. This corroborates the story I’ve been told so far, since the original owner stated that the car was built as early as 2009. As I look further into the details, more questions are being raised. If this is the prototype for the KV-40 car, then where are the records for it? Shouldn’t there be some documentation somewhere showing how this car was built?

Suffice to say, it looks like this mystery isn’t solved at all. However, I am extremely close to solving it! I now know that this car and its possible sister car was built for the KV-40 class. This class was unique, as it was sponsored by Panasonic and the cars used a 40 AA battery rechargeable power cell. According to this new research, this car was competing in this class and not the KV-1 class I thought earlier. This also could explain why the battery pack was replaced with two 18-volt scooter batteries. Perhaps the original battery pack was taken out of this car and put into the racer?

What next?

Before writing this post, I actually managed to write an inquiry to Osaka Sangyo University (see my Instagram) requesting verification of what I had. Of course when I wrote it, I believed I had the actual racer and not a possible prototype. Either way, I hope that my inquiry will be answered as I could finally have the final word on what I actually have!

But, there is also the possibility that I may not get an answer at all. Whatever happens, I’m still very certain that Osaka Sangyo University did build this car! I just have to wait and see!

Mystery Solved!: The Origin of the Eco Racer!

The Eco-Racer, shortly before we put it away.

In my last blog post, I wrote about my latest acquisition; a prototype carbon fiber-bodied endurance racer designed to be as efficient as possible. I call it the “Eco Racer” because of it’s resemblance to cars built for the Shell Eco Marathon. However, the full origin of this vehicle was a mystery. The previous owner could not recall exactly where it might have raced. Instead, I had a narrow time frame for when the machine was built, and the the university that built it: Osaka Sangyo University. Thus, my search for the full origin of this vehicle began. Now,  I am extremely proud to say “Mystery Solved!”

The Start of the Mystery

When I brought the racer home, I went to get as much information from the previous owner as possible. I wanted to see if I could get some more details regarding who built the car and when. I hoped that I could at least have a few names that could lead me in the right direction. Unfortunately the seller didn’t have much more to give me than the following information:

  • The “Eco Racer” was built by Osaka Sangyo University in Japan.
  • The seller’s sister-in-law (a Stanford-trained mathematician) helped build it.
  • The vehicle was supposedly built in the Summer of 2009, and raced for a special inter-university competition for electric vehicles.
  • The vehicle was kept for years before it was retired and then sent to sister-in-law. This was likely done as a sign of gratitude.
  • She ended up giving the vehicle to her brother-in-law to tinker with before he decided to sell it.

So, I had a several clues to find out the origin of the Eco Racer. However, it could still take a long time to narrow down where this thing came from.  So, I had to make several theories and educated guesses. I hoped I could easily find this information because of how unique this vehicle was. But, I learned that this was just the start of the journey!

Origin Theory #1: A Shell Eco Marathon Racer

Earlier I had mentioned the Shell Eco Marathon and how the Eco Racer closely resembled those vehicles. So I began my search through history of the Marathon cross-referencing what I knew about the Eco Racer. I found several races where the car could have raced. But, the best candidate was the Shell Eco Marathon held in Malaysia.

The Shell Eco Marathon Asia has been held in Singapore for the last 10 years. Also, the race features racer designs similar to the Eco Racer. I thought that because the this is an international event, Osaka Sangyo University could have participated. However, my search turned up nothing regarding the university or the Eco Marathon. There are also several discrepancies I found with the design of the car and the other racers:

  • All of the racers participating the marathon were non-electric, fuel-powered vehicles. The Eco Racer on the other hand is completely electric.
  • The majority of the racers built for the marathon had a tubular space frame chassis. However, the Eco Racer has a honeycomb and carbon fiber monocoque.
  • There was no record of Osaka Sangyo University participating in the Shell Eco Marathon.
  • I was also told the car only raced in Japan. The Shell Eco Marathon Asia however has always been held in Singapore.

Based on this new information, I decided to put this theory to bed and move on.

Origin Theory #2: An electric endurance racer for Greenpower UK

Greenpower: putting engineering in pole position
The IET racer at the 2016 Greenpower UK Race

Using what I knew about the car, I decided to look at endurance racing series specifically for electric vehicles. This is how I found out about Greenpower UK. Greenpower is an educational trust and charity that sponsors electric race events for schools in the UK, and name licensing to events in the USA, China, India, Malaysia, and Poland. Every year they hold races for electric kit cars built by different schools with the goal to get students excited about STEM, sustainable technologies, and racing.

However, it became clear that the Eco Racer was not built for this racing series for the following reasons:

  • All of the racers built to participate in this series have open-top cockpits. However, the Eco Racer has a fully enclosed cockpit. The construction of the cars also vastly differ from the construction of the Eco Racer.
  • The majority of the schools participating in this event are public schools; not universities like Osaka Sangyo University.
  • Events are mostly held in the UK, and none are hosted in Japan. If the car only raced in Japan then it wouldn’t have raced with this series.

Once again, I had to revise my theory and move on. This time, I decided to go in a slightly different direction.

Origin Theory #3: A joint venture between Osaka Sangyo University and Stanford University

By KVDP – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9426776

Because the car was claimed to have been built with the help of a Stanford Student, I theorized that this car might have been a joint venture with Osaka Sangyo University and raced between Japan and the USA for electric car endurance events. Also, the presence of some professional decals from Stanford University on the vehicle suggested that this thing could have raced for Stanford too. So I set out to search for electric endurance events where Stanford and Osaka Sangyo could have raced. The two series I found where the Electrathon America Series, and the SAE Supermileage Series.

130511_GT_ABO_ELECTRIC_2
Rockport High School Students test their entries in the 2013 Electrathon at Lime Rock.

Electrathon America is a competition series where teams can build three or four-wheeled cars powered by commercially available battery packs. Thanks to it’s low cost of entry and use of commercially available parts, schools across the country could compete in this series. There were a few problems though with this part of the theory though:

  • The majority of the participants in this series are from High School STEM programs, and although there are enclosed racers similar to the Eco Racer, the Eco Racer is more sophisticated in its construction.
  • There was no record of Osaka Sangyo or Stanford University participating in this event, which is held all across America.

This left the SAE Supermileage competition as the likeliest candidate. The Society of Automotive Engineers’ Supermileage competition is an engineering design competition for undergraduate and graduate students for building high-efficiency endurance vehicles. Stanford University and Osaka Sangyo University both have top-shelf transportation engineering programs, so it wasn’t far outside the scope of imagination that both universities could field a car in this competition. The construction of the cars also closely resemble the construction of the Eco Racer, so I was sure I was close to finally cracking the mystery wide open!

However, after some digging it became apparent that there were also too many discrepancies for the Eco Racer to have competed in this series:

  • While the construction of the vehicles were very similar to the Eco Racer, the powertrain rules for the competition stated that only a Briggs and Stratton Junior 206 motor could be used. This ruled out the electric powertrain the  Eco Racer uses.
  • There is no record of Stanford racing in this event. After cross referencing this information, I also found that Osaka Sangyo University didn’t participate in this event despite the fact that the event is sponsored by SAE International.
  • Again, I was told that the vehicle only raced in Japan. I couldn’t find any records stating that the SAE Supermileage Compeition was held in Japan.

In the end, the presence of the Stanford decals ended up being a bit of red herring. It was likely that they were added after the previous owners took possession of the vehicle. Disappointed, I decided to start my search from scratch focusing on electric endurance racing events in Japan.

Origin Theory #4: An Electric Racer built for the Supermileage Car Challenge Hiroshima

The Kanazawa Institute of Technology takes a great photo from the 2012 Supermileage Car Challenge Hiroshima.

After refocusing my search for Japan-Only events, I managed to find an interesting event called the Supermileage Car Challenge Hiroshima. After doing some more digging, I managed to find the website for the Fancy Carol Race Team and their history competing in this event. Using this newfound information, I searched for images and videos of the event from the different years Fancy Carol competed in the event. I had hoped that I could catch a glimpse of something that would eventually lead me to the true origin of the Eco Racer.

The event seemed to check all the boxes for the story of the Eco Racer. The Supermileage Car Challenge Hiroshima is a yearly event held in Hiroshima where different colleges and technical schools build high-efficiency endurance racers and compete against one another on a closed course. The event history also puts it on a similar timeline to the supposed build date of the Eco Racer, so it could have competed in this event. At one point, I had even found an incredibly similar car to the Eco Racer and had believed it to be some sister car because of how close the designs were! However, this proved to be another dead end for the following reasons:

  • There was no record of Osaka Sangyo University competing in this event.
  • The majority cars racing in this event were combustion engine-powered.
  • Of all the electric vehicles in the event, none of them resembled the Eco Racer closely enough to warrant further research.

Frustrated and tired, I decided to rethink my approach and try to rest for a bit. It seemed that the farther down the rabbit hole I went, the more I was learning what the car wasn’t as opposed to what it actually was. However, I could literally feel how close I was to finding out the truth of the Eco Racer. I even told my mentor how close I felt to finding the answer, to which he told me “Keep trying.” As tired and as frustrated as I was, I was no where near close to giving up. My gut was telling me I was about to make a breakthrough. Sometimes, you’ve just got to listen to your gut, because I did in fact make that breakthrough immediately after!

The Breakthrough

THAT’S IT!

I decided to expand my search to look for supermileage-style cars in Japan and was looking through Google’s Image search, when I came across a similar looking car and a link that read “Ene-1 GP”. Curious, I decided to look further into the Ene-1 GP. As it turns out, the Ene-1 GP is a special race sponsored by Panasonic held at both Twin Ring Motegi and the legendary Suzuka circuit in Japan which features electric endurance vehicles! In addition to this, all of the teams that compete in the event are from Japanese Colleges, Technical Schools, and public schools. Lastly, the inaugural race at the Suzuka circuit was in 2011, which would have placed this event just after the car would have been built.

Emboldened by this new information, I decided to cross-reference what I found with a query that included “Ene-1 GP” and “Osaka Sangyo University” through Google Images. That’s when I found this image:

OSU Solar Car Project OSU New Energy Vehicle Project
That is a strikingly similar-looking vehicle to the Eco-Racer on the left!

My heart stopped as I looked over the image. Right there on the left is a very familiar-looking bullet surrounded by happy faces and “OSU” in large letters in the banner they were holding behind it. Was THIS the car? I decided to translate the article that the image was attached to, and found references to the “KV-1” class at the Ene-1 GP and an interview with the driver that drove the vehicle. Also. the article itself was from Osaka Sangyo University’s own news network, so I decided to cross-reference this information one more time with a search query that included the racing class. Finally, I found what I was looking for!

THERE IT IS ON THE COVER!!!

This is a special commemorative newsletter from Osaka Sangyo University celebrating their participation in the 2015 Ene-1 GP and their “New Energy Vehicle” project. And featured right there on the cover was my car! I finally found evidence of the car racing in a special series in Japan just like the previous owner said!

I dug a little deeper hoping to find more evidence of the car in the Ene-1 GP, and found several references from 2013, 2015, and 2017! In fact, the car makes several background appearances in this narrative video about the 2017 Ene-GP! at 07:48 and 08:20!:

Here is Osaka Sangyo University’s KV-1 Car at the 2017 Ene-1 GP!

The holy grail however was placing the vehicle at the very first Ene-1 GP in 2011. I couldn’t find any resources that definitively stated that this vehicle took place in that race. However, I did find this video on a blog in Rakuten taken during the commemorative photo session at the first tournament. On the thumbnail of the video, you can actually see a very similar looking car on the far left of the paddock at Suzuka!

That nose design is very distinctive! That has to be it!
In detail. The windshield and front profile looks exactly the same in later races!

Still, I had to absolutely be sure that the vehicle was the same exact vehicle I now own. I needed a picture of the inside of the cabin so I match details. After digging some more, I found a news article with this picture attached:

Ene-1 GP MOTEGI
That is definitively my car!

This picture is the final piece to the puzzle. Not only does it clearly show the canopy design details of the car, but the controls and internal mechanics of the car are clearly visible. They are exactly the same as the controls on my car! This is it, the mystery has finally been solved! What I have in my possession is an electric prototype race car designed by Osaka Sangyo University, with a racing pedigree!

A New Chapter…and more questions

Now that I have solved the mystery of the origin of this car and where it raced, I can finally focus on getting it road-worthy again in anticipation for this year’s events! My hope is to restore this car back to its condition when it last raced in 2017. However, there are a few unanswered questions about the history of this vehicle:

  • Where was the car kept when it wasn’t raced? There might be more documentation somewhere out there if the car was fielded for 6 whole years.
  • Was this car used to promote the university? Where else could have this car been shown?
  • Are there still people at the university who might remember this vehicle? If so, how do I reach out to them?

I decided to see if I can reach out to instructors at Osaka Sangyo University and see if anyone might remember this car and could tell me more about it. I found the contact information of one of the professors in the Advanced Vehicle Design Lab and sent an email to him with a link to the first article I wrote about the car, several pictures, and the newsletter with the car on the cover.  If I could get further confirmation of the history of the car with a first-hand account of the car’s race history, then I would be extremely happy! Plus, this would be a great story for Osaka Sangyo University. I can imagine the newsletter staff getting really excited to learn that one of the University’s prototype electric cars is still functioning in the USA!

But for now, I’ll wait and see what the final word is. I am incredibly happy to finally learn the history of this car, and I hope that I can add to the living history of this machine!

I can fit!
OSU’s KV-1 Prototype is in safe hands!

Sources:

So I bought an Eco-Racer

So, despite everything that’s been going on in the world, there is at least one silver lining. People are selling just about anything on Craigslist for some quick cash! There are some interesting deals out there, and by extension, there are some interesting cars on sale. And sometimes, someone is selling an Eco-Racer in the next neighborhood over.

I should probably explain that I didn’t go out there looking for something. In between work, school, and the existential dread of living in a post-capitalist dystopian nightmare other things, I’m just too busy to take on yet another project.

That changed when my mentor sent me a picture of this:

new toy
Just what exactly is this?

A local Craigslist ad for a “Electric Prototype Vehicle” hidden in the “ATV-Motorcycles” section, with this photo. Most people looking at this thing would probably have dismissed it as someone’s backyard project vehicle. But of course, I knew better.

This wasn’t some backyard go-kart build. This actually is a prototype “high-efficiency” racer in the same vein as a Shell Eco-Challenge racer!

What is an Eco-Racer?

An “Eco-Challenge Racer” is a single seat, superlight vehicle designed to be as efficient as possible. This means the body is usually made of lightweight composite materials, and designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. The best eco-racers have a drag coefficient around 0.1, which is more efficient than a Toyota Prius!

Usually, these vehicles have a compact powerplant designed to consume 1 liter per 100 miles, or 235MPG! But, electric and even solar-powered racers are common too. These vehicles aren’t necessarily fast, but they’re so small and low, driving them must be a lot of fun!

The funny thing is, I’ve had an obsession with designing and building something like this as a school project. And here was one on sale in our own neighborhood.

I think you can see where this is going.

A Cool School Project

After chatting with my mentor about the listing, I decided to send the seller a message. A short while later, we got into contact. After asking a few questions and learning more about the vehicle, we made plans to meet.

The next morning, we hopped on over and got a good look at this eco-racer. I was amazed at the construction of it! The monocoque is made from cardboard honeycomb sandwiched in carbon fiber, and the cowlings are made from a single sheet of carbon fiber. Even the controls are carbon fiber! The end result is a superlight torpedo of a vehicle! I was so amazed by this thing, I had to know exactly where it came from.

a carbon fiber torpedo
One of my friends tries on the eco-racer!

Apparently, this eco-racer belonged to the seller’s sister-in-law. She was a Stanford Mathematician who in the Summer of 2009 traveled to Osaka Sangyo University to assist a student team in designing and building this eco-racer for some inter-university competition. Osaka Sangyo is famous for designing and building highly efficient, record-breaking electric cars and solar-powered vehicles!

The eco-racer that was now sitting in front of me apparently came from an institution with a racing pedigree. Sadly, this was all I was able to find out about the racer from my initial meeting with the seller. Could it be possible that the same minds that built these record-breaking cars from a decade ago built this thing?

After the competition ended and the sister-in-law flew home, the eco-racer showed up on their doorstep some time later. As thanks for her help with the project, Osaka Sangyo University had sent the entire vehicle to her home and paid for all the shipping! From there, she kept in the garage and eventually gave it to her brother-in-law to tinker with. And now, he wanted to give it a new home.

I was pretty shocked that something like this was even in my backyard! I don’t even think the ad was up for a full 24 hours before I contacted the seller! But, how often does something like this even pop up on Craigslist, of all places?

So, I pulled the trigger.

The Eco-Racer comes home

I can fit!
I fit!

After paying the seller and convincing a skeptical, but intrigued friend to borrow his time and his truck to haul this thing home, we unloaded it and took a good look at its construction. With the cowlings and the wheel covers taken off, its pretty clear how extensive the cardboard honeycomb and carbon fiber construction is! There doesn’t seem to be any internal framing except for the brackets holding the motor and rear wheel assembly in place. Even the upper surface the controls are built on the same cardboard-carbon fiber composite as the belly of the racer.

As advanced as the monocoque and cowlings are, the powertrain is simple to understand and work on. Everything is made from off-the-shelf components. The wheels and tires are from a folding bicycle, and the 100W motor itself is from an electric scooter. The motor is paired with a bicycle chain and a single sprocket turning the rear wheel, and the single rear disk brake is taken from a bicycle as well. Power is provided by a pair of 18-volt scooter batteries controlled by a single toggle switch and a pulse width modulator acting as the throttle.

A close up of the controls, with me in it!

With this powertrain and the lightweight monocoque, this eco-racer could be capable of 20+ mph! The seller did mention however that the electronics need to be upgraded. After all, the batteries and the motor are over ten years old. Despite their age, the batteries still hold a charge, and we were able to get the eco-racer to move with my 215 pound frame wedged inside the cockpit! With some upgrades, this thing has a lot of potential!

After we were done playing with it, we buttoned up the cockpit cowling again, taped the windows up for extra security, and then lifted the entire racer onto a portable table near the back of the garage. Then we attached the rear wheel cowl with a single bolt and closed up shop. Right now the eco-racer is sitting pretty until I decide which direction I want to take with it.

So, what now?

The Eco-Racer, shortly before we put it away.

Now that the Eco-Racer is safe and secure, there are a few things I need to do to it:

  1. Replace the older batteries:
    • Even though the batteries and motor are still functioning well, they’re really old. Since the powertrain is built from scooter parts, I could easily source a pair of new batteries and possibly a new motor. In fact, I could possibly upgrade the motor itself and add a 200W instead of the 100W it’s running now. The most important part is the battery pack, so that will be the first to be replaced.
  2. Create a new battery mount:
    • Currently, the battery pack sits behind a simple panel made from the same cardboard honeycomb and carbon fiber the monocoque is made from. Because the batteries are heavy they don’t move around as much when the eco-racer is in motion, but I still don’t like loose components. I want to glue a simple angle bracket and fasten the batteries against the rear wall of the cockpit. I might even add a metal hanging strap or two secure the battery pack further against the angle bracket and the wall.
  3. A new seat:
    • What am I kidding, there is no seat! That panel I mentioned earlier is what you lay against when sitting in the eco-racer. It’s pretty uncomfortable, so I plan on making a new segmented version that not only hides the battery, but is contoured to the upper back for a little more comfort. In fact, I want to use this as an excuse to see if I can make my own cardboard honeycomb carbon fiber panels!
  4. Taping the windows back in:
    • Since the original tape holding up the windows to the cockpit cowling is starting to deteriorate, I want to replace it with automotive VHB tape. This tape can be really thin and transparent, so it wouldn’t look too distracting and it would fasten the windows better then the current setup. Then, I could add thin tape around the outside of the windows to seal the seams between the windows and the body, Bonneville style!
  5. Tracking down the history of the Eco-Racer:
    • This part might be the most difficult. Aside from what I was told by the seller, there is virtually no history or documentation on this eco-racer as far as I know. The seller’s sister-in-law also couldn’t recall who worked on the project, and the name of the competition the eco-racer was a part of. But, I have enough information to begin looking in the right direction. If the eco-racer came from Osaka Sangyo University, it must have been constructed as part of some sort of automotive engineering program. If that is the case, then it’s just a matter of cross-referencing the timeframe in which the racer was built with who might have been teaching at Osaka Sangyo in something related to automotive engineering at the time. From there, it should be a matter of reaching out and confirming everything about the racer!

Stay Tuned!

My hope with this new project is to have something interesting to show off once Cars and Coffee events start opening up again. This could be an interesting opportunity to advertise the Academy of Art’s Transportation Design Program too! I would love to take a crack at redesigning the cockpit cowling as well. Having this thing will be a great opportunity start learning how to fabricate with composite materials.

The possibilities are endless!