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May 5, 2005

Fast and Loose

What's the land-speed record for electric vehicles? It depends on whom you ask.

Carl Bialik

In a public-relations coup, a British electric-vehicle team landed a story in the Associated Press heralding their quest for the world land speed record. The AP story, which landed on dozens of Web sites including the Guardian's, ABC News's, and CNN's, reported that Britons Mark Newby and Colin Fallows were gunning for speeds above 300 miles per hour, which would top the 245 mph record set in the U.S. in 1999. (So did a handful of other articles, including this one from News.com.)

e-motion
courtesy ABB


ABB's e-motion

That came as an unpleasant surprise to Gina Langen, a spokeswoman for Ohio State's Buckeye Bullet. The student-run team that designed the Bullet claims on its website to have the national record of 315 mph and international record of 272 mph, both set last October at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah (the two records have different judging criteria). "It's a little distressing," Langen told Gelf. "They're saying in the story that no other vehicle has traveled at this speed, and that's not true." She added, "We think credit should be given to the Ohio State students who worked so hard."

But there's a catch: International sanctioning body Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, based in France, didn't send a representative to Bonneville and therefore didn't sanction the record. (The FIA didn't return Gelf's call for comment Thursday.) So the Buckeye Bullet's record was sanctioned only by the Bonneville Nationals Inc. That allows the Brits and their e-motion team to shoot at a lower target in Nevada this week. (They were supposed to make an attempt Thursday but hit a glitch, and now need to hope for good weather in the next couple of days to try to break the FIA record.)

Andy Kirk, a colleague of Newby's, told Gelf, "Buckeye Bullet does hold a couple of records at the moment, but they're not the official FIA records." The press release put out by team sponsor ABB, the Switzerland-based engineering company, doesn't mention Buckeye Bullet even as it asserts, "A high-speed electrical car, powered by ABB motors and drives, will attempt to break the land speed record for an electrical vehicle on May 5 in Nevada, U.S." ABB spokesman Ron Kurtz told Gelf, by way of explanation, "The Buckeye Bullet was not judged by FIA."

That technicality shouldn't keep the media from noting in its coverage that the land-speed record is in dispute. Gelf called Paul Foy, who wrote the AP story, and it was the first he'd heard of Buckeye Bullet. He promised to look into it.

UPDATE: In a follow-up story about the delay in e-motion's attempt at the record, Foy wrote, "An Ohio State University team said it deserved recognition for already having broken the 300 mph barrier—but the Buckeye Bullet got a push start to hoard battery power for higher speeds. It averaged 314.9 mph over two runs. Ohio State engineering student Isaac Harper said the British team is 'six months too late.' Newby said he was operating under stricter protocols of the Fédération Internationale de L'Automobile, the motor sports governing body, which did not sanction or certify Ohio State's run last October on the Salt Flats. Newby will get no push start, and he'll have to make two runs in less than an hour, swapping batteries in between. Ohio State's turnaround took four hours."

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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