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8 Races and Race Cars that Rev Auto Innovation

These latest technological advances may leave mark on auto industry

Robert Laberge / Getty Images
Auto races and the engineering behind the cars gunning for the checkered flag are powerhouses of automotive technological innovation. See below to check out eight places where races and race cars are making a mark on the future of the industry, from proving the viability of alternative fuels to cars piloted by robots. Here, ethanol-fueled Indy cars make a lap at the Indianapolis 500.

Streeter Lecka / Getty Images
Race series has a green flag
Race cars competing in the American Le Mans Series, which is modeled after the 24 Hours of Le Mans but with shorter race durations, can win by crossing the finish line ahead of the pack or their green credentials. In the Green Challenge portion of the series, cars compete in categories such as fuel efficiency and level of their overall environmental impact. The competition, developed in partnership with the federal government and the engineering organization SAE International, is designed to promote development of alternative fuel technologies. The race cars run on three different types of fuel: E10 gasoline (a mixture of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline) E85 cellulosic ethanol, and zero-sulfur diesel. Race cars are seen here taking practice laps at an event in Braselton, Georgia.

Dirk Lammers / AP
Solar challenge promotes renewable energy
At price tags in the many hundreds of thousands of dollars, the streamlined cars seen zipping along in the American Solar Challenge competition, last held in 2008 on a 2,400 mile track from Plano, Texas, to Alberta, Canada, are unlikely to clog up highways anytime soon, but they do shed light on how solar and other renewable energy technologies could help power autos in the future. One idea is to outfit electric-gas hybrids cars with solar panels to charge up batteries while their owners toil away in office-park cubicles. The University of Michigan-designed car shown here took first place in the competition.

University of Warwick / AP
Formula 3 racecar shows racing can be green
Motorsports enthusiasts and tree huggers are unlikely bedfellows, but researchers at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom recently unveiled a Formula 3 racecar packed with engineering that shows off their green side. The steering wheel is made from carrot fiber; flax and hemp fibers are woven in to the body components; and it runs on biodiesel made with waste from chocolate factories and vegetable oil, for example. “The WorldFirst project expels the myth that performance needs to be compromised when developing the sustainable motor vehicles of the future,” project manager James Meredith said in a statement.

David Duprey / AP
Race showcases fuel-efficient vehicles 
The Green Grand Prix, held annually in Watkins Glenn, N.Y., brings together enthusiasts of all sorts of newfangled alternative-fueled vehicles as well as traditional gasoline sippers to showcase technologies that can help free the U.S. from foreign sources of oil and be gentler on the environment. The marquee event is a 60-mile road rally along the region’s back roads. Entrants in the 2008 competition included the solar powered car and the 1913 Woods Electric car shown here.

Biofuel ethanol revs up Indy cars
The biofuel ethanol – made in the U.S. primarily with corn – got a boost in the public eye when the Indy Racing League announced a switch from natural-gas derived methanol to the plant-derived fuel in 2007. Ethanol backers say the switch helps prove to critics that the biofuel performs as well as other fuels – an industry that prides itself on speed wouldn’t go for a fuel that hinders the performance of their cars, the argument goes. In this image, the Team Ethanol car takes a practice lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

FuelVapor Technologies
An X prize for cars
More than 100 teams are competing to produce a commercially viable car that gets the equivalent of at least 100 miles per gallon of gas for a share of a $10 million purse. The Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize is modeled after previous X Prize competitions that spurred breakthroughs in spaceflight and genetics. This one aims to spur the innovation needed to bring to market a car that gets the equivalent of at least 100 miles per gallon of gasoline. Entrants in the contest include the Alé hybrid vehicle by FuelVapor Technologies shown here.

Kiichiro Sato / AP
Gas capless: A NASCAR convenience for (Ford’s) masses
When Ford’s NASCAR racers pull in for a pitstop, the pit crew doesn’t mess around with a gas cap. There isn’t one. And now, many consumer models don’t have one either. The feature uses a spring-loaded flapper door that eliminates the need for a fuel tank screw cap, the company explains. The innovation means no more lost caps and less gasoline vapors escaping from the car to foul the environment and driver’s clothes. The feature is shown here on a 2009 F-150 pickup truck, the company’s top-selling vehicle.

Tangi Quemener / AFP – Getty Images
Competition leaves the driving to robots
Someday in the future, every car might be like a taxi: Hop in, shout out a destination and sit back to enjoy the ride. Only the taxi driver will be a robot. That’s one potential outcome of the technology that teams of university and corporate researchers use in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s robotic vehicle races. DARPA, as the Pentagon agency is known, is interested in robotically driven vehicles for use on the battlefield as a way to put real people out of harm’s way. In this image, 2007 race winner, a roboticized Chevrolet Tahoe SUV, crosses the finish line to claim a $2 million check.

John Paul Strong

John Paul Strong combines his two decades of automotive marketing experience with a team of more than 150 professionals as owner and CEO of Strong Automotive.

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