When MIT junior Anna Jaffe and Robyn Allen, a senior, were planning a design-build venture at MIT focused on superefficient vehicles, they decided to aim high.

How high? Think 300 miles per gallon or equivalent. “When we first proposed it, a lot of people said, ‘We can’t do that!’ But in fact, it got them really motivated,” says Jaffe, a native of New Jersey. Motivated enough, in fact, that more than 50 students from universities in 21 countries came to MIT for the first-ever Vehicle Design Summit.

The nine-week session this past summer resulted in the design and construction of four vehicles, with power sources ranging from solar to biofuels to mostly human. (The vehicles had to be able to hit 80 mph, and it would take a Lance Armstrong to do that in a solely human-powered vehicle).

Though the Summiteers were working against tight deadlines, their vehicles were mostly completed by summer’s end, and all four either exceeded or got very close to that 300-mpg goal.

Participants are now back at their respective institutions, but a follow-up session is set for January. After that, the group hopes to enter some of the vehicles in the first U.S. version of the Shell Eco-Marathon, an alternative vehicle race planned for California in April.

Jaffe, a civil and environmental engineering major who once spent a summer at a Colorado institute devoted to energy innovation, says the project’s about more than simply creating high-mileage vehicles. The group would also like to spur new design efforts focused on creating production class versions of the Summiteers’ alternative vehicles.

The idea would be to design every subsystem of the vehicle — seats, drivetrain, steering apparatus, engine — from the ground up, then work on integrating them into prototype vehicles. “Small groups of students from more than 20 universities will each be assigned a subsystem,” notes Jaffe. “Meanwhile, we hope to parallel their efforts by calling for a vehicle design course at MIT.”

For related energy stories, please see MIT’s video magazine ZigZag

ZigZag: Vehicle Design Summit: Episode 9