By Bill Moore
C. Michael Lewis is seriously into extreme efficiency. It's his personal mission to make it cool.
Okay... "cool" dates him. He admits he's a 55 year-old hippie, but that doesn't prevent him from squeezing his lanky frame into a tiny sliver of an electric car in pursuit of speed records while proselytizing the virtues of energy efficiency vehicles.
Lewis initially was attracted in the mid-1980s to human-powered "Xtreme" machines that are, essentially, highly streamlined shells over racing bicycle frames. As he aged, he became interested in their electric-powered counterparts and the Electrathon movement that nurtured them.
The Electrathon movement initially originated in the Britain and then migrated to Australia where it was transplanted to California, gradually spreading up the Pacific Coast. From there, it caught on as a way to introduce American high school students to electric vehicles they could design, build, and race themselves for only a few thousand dollars.
There is no specific formula for the design of the cars. They need only be safe, capable of carrying a single driver, and be powered with 64 pounds (29kg) of lead acid batteries. The result is wildly fun innovation and improvisation. (EV World "godfathered" the program in Nebraska that now includes over 100 high schools across the state).
Lewis, who is a member of the Electrathon America board, helped start the program in Maine, where it eventually grew to include some 20 schools. Other Northeast states got involved and there now small, but growing programs in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Lewis designed this poster for the 2005 National Speed Trials, which had to be cancelled due to weather.
Besides being a freelance illustrator and graphic designer for the last 28 years, doing posters and t-shirt designs for various events including the annual Tour de Sol, Lewis began designing and racing his own Electrathon-class cars.
He likes to talk about the extremes of the sport explaining that he's seen everything form a $300 car that some high school students cobbled together from old bicycle parts and an electric motor over a weekend to a 25-member high school team from Detroit with two cars rumored to cost $80,000. (The custom-made mold for the body shell was made by a automotive supplier that specializes in this for $20,000).
The current top speed for most efficient designs is just shy of 50 mph. The record is currently held by a high school team. The cars race on either road courses or ovals depending on what's available. Each heat last one hour and the winner is the car that completes the most number of laps in that time. So, the very best cars are traveling nearly 50 miles on a single charge. Lewis has gotten his car, for brief periods of time, up to 55 mph.
Electrathon-class cars aren't the only approach to teaching kids about electric vehicles. Another equally popular program, often found in the Southeast and Southwest regions of the America., takes a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle and converts it to electric drive. Lewis sees this as an excellent way to prepare kids who are going to be working on cars for a living. He personally, however, finds the creativity found in the Electrathon cars much more appealing and intellectually satisfying.
Another observation he's made over the years is the diversity of people that these programs bring together. In high schools, it is usually the kids who excel academically that tend to participate, but they quickly learn that they also need the kids down the automotive shop who are often on the verge of dropping out of school. Together, they end up helping and learning from each other.
Lewis and his partner, who is the engineer and machinist, have built five cars, starting with a plywood "mule". Over time, we've learned from their own experience and from some of those competitive high school teams, how to improve the next car. His current vehicle is six inches lower, has 25 percent less frontal area and weighs a mere 105 lbs (47.63 kg)
"On paper, this car will go sixty-eight", he said.
One of his goals, besides capturing the speed record from the Portland, Maine high school team that currently holds it, is to find a way to use television to reach out to more kids. But these extreme efficiency sports are the antithesis of high-powered sports like Nascar, where cars go 200+ and drivers risk life and limb.
"These events are like watching paint dry", Lewis admitted, but he is convinced that television can be used to make them more exciting to watch. To that end, he's been trying for some time now to get a major corporate sponsor interested in at least funding a web site devoted to the four major extreme efficiency sports: human-powered racing where the top speed is now 81 mpgh, Electrathon, Solar Challenges and SAE's maximum mileage vehicles, which are similar to Electrathon-type vehicles but usually are powered by gasoline engines. He thinks Siemens would be an ideal candidate, but convincing them has proved a challenge.
"If we could get all these groups together, we could learn from each other".
"We're trying to develop an ethic of efficiency. We're trying to get people to think that being efficient is really cool, as opposed to raw power".
To learn more about Michael Lewis' views and efforts, be sure to listen to our complete 34-minute interview in MP3 format.