Michelin's Annual Eco Challenge heads east with a host of hi-tech, environmentally friendly cars battling it out for top spot in Shanghai, China.

One week after the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit (SIC), the paddocks and pit lanes were busy again with cars lapping around the track. There were 150 vehicles to be exact and around 2000 people present, but they were not there to race. Not on the circuit, at least.

The SIC was used to hold the 2004 Michelin Challenge Bibendum, an annual event that started in 1999, and is aimed to promote automotive technology that saves fuel, cuts emissions and increases recycling. Participants mainly consisted of car manufacturers and auto-related businesses, while the visitors are made up of journalists, politicians and the public.

The circuit was for the visitors to test-drive the show cars. There was a good mix of prototypes and production vehicles, with most of them using fuel cells, bio-diesel and hybrid petrol/electric systems.

The fuel-cell cars are mostly hydrogen powered, while the bio-diesel examples used renewable resources such as corn, vegetables, cooking oil and so on. The hybrid engines ran on either petrol or diesel, combined with battery-powered electric motors.

There was a friendly competition held for these cars also. Those who took part had to complete an 88-kilometre route around the Shanghai city, and were evaluated on the following: acceleration, braking, slalom, noise, fuel efficiency, carbon dioxide (CO2), range and emissions.

Out of the 74 cars that took part, Toyota came in first with its gasoline-hybrid Prius, followed by Audi with the A8 3.0 TDI in second and Mercedes-Benz F-Cell A- Class in third. The average consumption for the diesel and gasoline propelled cars was 5L/100km, with a handful managing an incredible 3L/100km. The fuel cell vehicles averaged a range of 300 kilometres. In general, these results are twice more impressive than four years ago.

Our vote for the most radically engineered vehicle goes to the hydrogen peroxide driven Habo No.1. You normally use hydrogen peroxide as hair bleach, but a Chinese firm, the Shanghai Habo Chemical Technology Company, managed to make it into an alternative fuel!

"The Habo No.1 may look like any other Volkswagen Santana, but the by-products of this car are water vapour and oxygen," said the project director.

"We wanted the Habo No.1 to look more special and probably give it a different bodyshell. However, we only had three months to create a working prototype to make it for the (2004) Challenge Bibendum," he continued.

Including Habo No.1, there were 43 Chinese-developed environment-friendly vehicles displayed. Some of them were production-ready, but what kept the makers from introducing their systems is mainly due to the lack of infrastructure. Hydrogen filling stations is a good example. With its rare existence, it's just not possible for car manufacturers to mass-produce fuel cell vehicles, which rely on hydrogen as an energy source.

Shanghai hosted the Challenge Bibendum because due to the rapid growth of the Chinese automotive market, traffic congestion in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai is severe, petroleum prices are rising drastically and according to China's Department of Pollution Control, the smog level has worsened by three folds for the last five years.

The Chinese government began encouraging companies to look into alternative fuels some 20 years ago. It hopes to find a kind of fuel that's made of locally abundant materials and emission-free.