Trucks at Work

Competing to drive innovation

The Shell Eco-marathon challenges students from across the globe to design and build energy efficient vehicles with the ultimate goal to see which team can go the farthest using the least amount of energy.” –Mark Singer, global project manager, Shell Oil Company

Sometimes, the best way to figure out new solutions to old problems is to toss a challenge to a bunch of eager high school and university students, stand back, and see what they come up with. That’s the thinking behind Shell Oil Co.'s annual “Eco-marathon” event, which the company holds in the Americas, Asia and in Europe.

The next U.S. running of the Eco-marathon competition takes place April 14-17, 2011 on the streets of downtown Houston, TX, and to keep it relevant to current automotive and energy trends, Shell has expanded the vehicle technology categories to include plug-in electric vehicles. The ultimate goal, however, remains the same: design a vehicle that can go the farthest distance using the least amount of energy.

Now, do any of these vehicles even remotely resemble something that could haul freight, much less be a practical source of transportation for the average motorist? Hardly; just look below and see for yourself some of the strange things these teams of students came up with during this year’s Eco-marathon back in March.

The key, though, is not so much the initial “practicality” of what these student teams design and build, but what their initial technological forays might lead to down the road. Some of these students work with diesel-based designs: maybe something they come up can be used to improve diesel engine fuel economy a few years from now.

That’s how this contest actually originated, way back in 1939 at a Shell research laboratory in the U.S. as a friendly wager between scientists to see who could get the most miles per gallon from their vehicle. The winner of that contest barely achieved 50 miles per gallon, but from these humble origins, a more organized competition evolved.

In 1985 in France, the first “official” Shell Eco-marathon was born, followed in April 2007, the Shell Eco-marathon Americas event in the U.S. and the inaugural Shell Eco-marathon Asia held in Malaysia last year.

The contest works like this: student teams are encouraged to participate in one or both of the “Prototype” and “Urban Concept” categories.

The “Prototype” category invites student teams to enter futuristic prototypes – streamlined vehicles focused on maximizing fuel efficiency through innovative design elements, such as drag reduction.

However, the "Urban Concept" category – introduced at the 2009 event – focuses on more "roadworthy" fuel-efficient vehicles. Aimed at meeting the real-life needs of drivers, these vehicles are closer in appearance to the higher-mileage cars seen on roads today.

[Here are some more of the designs entered in the 2010 Eco-marathon Americas event in Houston.]

For both categories, teams can use any conventionally available energy source – including fuels such as diesel and gasoline as well as alternative fuels such as hydrogen, biomass, solar and, now, electric plug-in. For the 2011 “Eco-marathon,” though, plug-in electric vehicles can now be entered alongside hydrogen fuel cells and solar vehicles in the Electric-Mobility energy division.

To enter, the plug-in electric vehicle must be fully electric using lithium or similar type battery; therefore acid lead batteries are not permitted, Shell stressed.

Shell will hold a total of three Eco-marathon events around the world in 2011:

• The 5th Shell Eco-marathon Americas held April 14-17 on a street track around the Discovery Green park in Houston, TX;

• The 28th Shell Eco-marathon Europe held May 26-28 at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz track in Germany;

• The 2nd Shell Eco-marathon Asia held July 6-9 at the Sepang International Circuit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

One thing is for sure: no matter which team wins, all motorists could potentially get to share in the victory if the winning technology leads of improved fuel efficiency in everyday cars and trucks.