"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."
"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."
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.)
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.
The total fuel consumption at an Eco-marathon – by the on-track vehicles – is around five gallons.
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?
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."
"In America the energy industry is less trusted than others, but we can't operate a business based on this."
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."
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."
"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."
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.