An Oil Company Spends Big To Teach Students To Use Less

shell eco-marathon mater dei

The Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2013 is over, the winners declared. Thousands of excited students came to Houston last weekend with 140 cars and the winning team managed to get upwards of 3,580 miles per gallon. Now that the cars have been packed up and shipped back to schools throughout the hemisphere, from Alaska to Brazil, we can look back and discuss some of the bigger issues that the three frenzied, fuel-efficient competition days – and the months of hard work leading up to the event – raise.

Before leaving Houston, we got to sit down with representatives from Shell, which spends an undisclosed amount of money to put on these Eco-marathons around the world. It's a huge undertaking, and one that has lots of positive angles and some particularly thorny ones. But first, a short history.

The story goes that the first Eco-marathon started as a bet between two Shell engineers. The year was 1939 and the winner managed to hit 49.39 mpg.

The story goes that the first Eco-marathon was started as a bet between two Shell engineers to see who could go further on a gallon of fuel. The year was 1939 and the winner managed to hit 49.39 miles per gallon in a 1933 Plymouth. They had so much fun they did it again and, by 1949, the winner was getting 150.53 mpg. The numbers kept going up from there. 1968: 244.62 mpg. 1973: 392.02 mpg. And so on. The event was known as the Shell Mileage Marathon, but in 1985, a name change signified the start of the event in its current form. That year, students from 20 European countries in 25 teams competed in the first Eco-marathon in France, and the winners managed to get 1599.45 mpg. The 1997 event was canceled because of heavy rain and in 2006 the first solar cars ran the race. In 2007, the event was held in the US for the first time, in Fontana, CA, and Asia joined the party in 2010. Today, across the three events, over 400 teams participate each year. Next year, a fourth location will draw teams from the Middle East and Africa. The current record is 8,914 mpg, set by a French team in 2003.

shell eco-marathon cars on track

The rules

At its heart, the Eco-marathon is a hypermiling event. Over the years, the competition has evolved to meet both the students' interest and increasingly relevant real-world situations. The Eco-marathons used to be held on racing tracks, but today they take place on urban roads. While the vehicles used are not feasible for daily drivers, there is an "urban concept" class that has slightly more realistic vehicles than what we see in the "prototype" class. The prototypes only need three wheels, and many of them are slender arrows designed to cut through the air as if they were, well, almost nothing at all. The classes are tested almost exactly the same on the track, except for a 30-second time difference.

In Houston, cars in either category need to run ten laps around a 0.6-mile course at a minimum average speed of 15 miles per hour. Technically, that means the six miles need to be completed in 24 minutes and 15 seconds. Urban Concept class vehicles get 24:45 because they need to come to a complete stop three times, hold position for ten seconds and then move again. This requirement "gives them opportunities for more design creativity on the vehicle," said Norman Koch, manager of engine technology at Shell and the technical manager for the Eco-marathon, noting that energy recuperation technology becomes important when you're forced to stop.

"You have to imagine, the top teams consume about a teaspoon of fuel on their 20-km run."

The Eco-marathon rules are, as a whole, identical anywhere around the world. "In Europe, we have a slightly longer distance because the overall performance level is higher with the top-end teams," Koch told AutoblogGreen. "We need a greater distance to differentiate between them. You have to imagine, the top teams consume about a teaspoon of fuel on their run. To differentiate between a teaspoon and a bit more than a teaspoon, we stretch it out to 20 kilometers. But here, over the last seven years the Eco-marathon has been running in the Americas, the performance has also crept up quite a bit. Yesterday we hit a new record with 3,000 mpg on the dot. That's the best ever at the Eco-mararthon Americas." By the time the competition was finished, the winning number was 3,587 mpg, and Koch said the course length in the US may need to be extended, too.

And so, to calculate these almost impossibly small fuel consumption rates, exact tests are needed. Over the decades, precisely such methods have been developed. For liquid fuels, the concept is simple, even it somewhat difficult to perform. The cars need to use a pressurized glass fuel tank (which Shell provides, in four different sizes, so better teams can use smaller – and lighter – bottles) that have a narrow neck marked with a fine hair line. Before starting, the fuel is filled to that line and its temperature is measured. After the run, the temperature is measured again and a burette is used to measure out the tank refill. Do a bit of math and you've got your miles per gallon number. For electric vehicles, the vehicles have a joule meter between the battery and the things that consume energy downstream (motor, motor controller, etc.). On the fuel cell side, there is a flow meter that measures the amount of H2 used to move the vehicle. In both electric cases, the end result is in miles per kWh. The total fuel consumption at an Eco-marathon – by the on-track vehicles – is around five gallons. Way more fuel is burnt by the police cars that we saw idling near the track for three days.

Shell does not tell the teams what types of fuels or powertrains to run, just that the big concept here is to think about the enormous emissions problem that is looming over us all and that something needs to be done to fix it. Koch said that Shell does not believe in a silver bullet to fight the global problem, and that Shell believes all solutions can be valuable. "[The Eco-marathon] is a platform," he said. "We put it on for you, but what you fill it with is your ideas and your innovation and your creativity. We only set the competition standards."

Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2013

"Electric motors are 150 years old. They are 98 percent efficient. There is not a lot to gain. But the batteries, if you make a breakthrough there, you could revolutionize this."

"Shell's main contribution is we put this event on from A to Z," he continued. "That means we organize everything you see, but that's the smaller part. The main work, actually, is to work with the students throughout the year to identify what drives them in the academic world. As just one example, when we defined the rules for the Shell Eco-marathon, we set the fuel categories. At the moment, five liquid fuels and two electrics. That is completely open to further suggestions. We've had fuels in the past that we've now ruled out. We had DME [dimethyl ether] which is not really relevant. We had compressed gas before. We listened to the students and as a result, last year, we added the battery electric category. We learned battery electric is a great topic at the universities, not only on the electric motor side, but also from the chemistry of the batteries. Because that is really the key to making battery electrics work. Electric motors are 150 years old. They are 98 percent efficient. There is not a lot to gain. But the batteries, we all know, if you make a breakthrough there, you could revolutionize this."

2013 Shell Eco-Marathon Americas

The extremes to which many of the Eco-marathon vehicles are pointed means that every aspect is open for improvement. For example, Michelin, our host at the event, makes two tire types that are popular in the prototype class. The more common are the blue bias ply (try to spot them in the gallery images), which cost the teams $79 per tire. The much more efficient radial tires (45/75 R16) are about 60 percent better, but also cost $235 a tire. It is in the calculations here – is the extra money worth it? does our team have funding to cover the difference? – that you can start to see how each group of students needs to make a million decisions before then ever pack up for Houston. (Read this for more on the students themselves.)

The total fuel consumption at an Eco-marathon – by the on-track vehicles – is around five gallons.

Some students have come up with their ways to fake a revolution. Namely, putting hidden energy into their cars. Over the last 30 years, students have tried everything, Koch said, from sails to spiking the fuels. This is why Shell now supplies the fuels, which are dyed and put into fuel lines that have to be transparent. In Houston, as is somewhat common at other Eco-marathons, some teams tampered with their brakes, loosening them to reduce friction on the track and thus gain a little efficiency. To combat this, Shell now tests the brakes after a run, instead of just ahead of time.

shell eco-marathon car

Shell's fuel efficiency contest in context

The on-track competition is, therefore, quite fair. Sure there are some teams with a lot more money behind them, but Shell offers travel stipends and encourages teams get their own sponsors – stickers don't seem to affect weight or aerodynamics. Still, this is Shell we're talking about. As if organized by the irony brigade, days before the Eco-marathon started in Houston, Shell's West Columbia, Texas, pipeline "lost" around 700 barrels of crude oil, and 50 barrels spilled into water that connects to the Gulf of Mexico. It was the third pipeline spill (not all by Shell) in the US that week, showing just how dangerous fossil fuels can be. A frequent target of Greenpeace and a big part of Big Oil, why is Shell involved in a fuel efficiency event?

"In America the energy industry is less trusted than others, but we can't operate a business based on this."

The answer, as both Koch and Shell communications manager Michelle Herskowitz will tell you, is the future. "In America, it has been shown that the energy industry is less trusted than others, but we can't operate a business based on this," Herskowitz said. "We are in the business of mobility and supplying products for mobility. We have done a lot of research and a lot of work on what the future challenges are. Like any company, we have to have a strategy to get there."

And part of that strategy is to spend a lot of money on a contest to inspire students to solve the big problems. Herskowitz said Shell doesn't do a tremendous amount of PR around the Eco-marathon – this year, the seventh in the Americas, was the first where they tried to promote it a bit more – and that, "We really look at this event as not a PR event, but as an opportunity to grow talent to focus on the (emissions) challenge."

"If an automotive company were to do that you could easily say they are just after the IP and the technology. I think we are unsuspicious in that respect."

Koch said it would be much more in Shell's interest to run a chemistry challenge, which makes sense. "Shell, obviously, is not in the business of transportation vehicles or developing exhaust aftertreatments or engine systems or tires or wheels or cars," he said. "I think this event is a very good example of an investment in young people where we are not the primary beneficiary. You could see such an event easily run by GM, Ford or Toyota and trying to siphon off not only the ideas but also the people. If an automotive company were to do that you could easily say they are just after the IP and the technology. I think we are unsuspicious in that respect. We teach the students that, 'Whatever you come up with, that is your IP. Think about patenting it before you use it.' That is why you will find, in the rules, that the engine technology is not regulated as all. We don't even interrogate the engine. If they come with an unusually wrapped box, for isothermal purposes, we don't look into it. We just want to make sure the energy that goes in is accounted for, and everything else is fine."

Setting forth

Whatever it is that the students take away from an Eco-marathon, there is an undeniable excitement in the paddock as they muster. The hushed discussions of last-minute fixes. The cheering as the drivers hypermile their way around the track. As I spoke with students from a number of teams, their enthusiasm was instantly apparent. What they didn't mention was the physical difficulty of actually getting into a prototype class vehicle.

Koch suggested I try fitting in one, and I was game. I'll admit I'm a bit heavier than the 50-kilograms (110-pound) minimum weight limit for a prototype driver (which explains why many drivers are girls), but even if I were a lot lighter, getting in and out would be tricky. On the test car I got to lay in (above), Koch had to put the roof on over me once I was strapped in. There are no doors or creature comforts of any type. I even had to take my shoes off so my toes would fit in the pointed nose.

I imagined what the students must feel like in one of these things – and how uncomfortable it would be to ride around a bumpy urban road for 25 minutes on a metal board with no suspension, all in the name of fuel efficiency. Yes, oil companies have a lot to answer for for the way our world is heating up (and, historically, so much more), but that doesn't mean what the students are feeling and learning is somehow corrupted. To travel from Alaska or Guatemala because you want to show off the neat way you've figured to save fuel, that's a real thing, a real possibility to wean not only drivers, but the oil companies themselves off of petroleum.