The Shell Eco-marathon is collaborative social innovation challenge that inspires students and young engineers around the world to design and build the next generation of fuel-efficient vehicles. The Shell Eco-marathon traces its roots to 1939 when it was an internal challenge amongst employees. Now, the eco-marathon takes place annually in three continents – the Americas, Europe and as of 2012, Asia. Students compete for cash prizes and the opportunity to set new records.
Shaun Stone, team manager, Aston University noted:
“The purpose of the competition is to go as far as possible on 1 litre of fuel, with off track awards for aspects such as sustainability and design also available.”
Through the eco-marathon, Shell aims to inspire a new generation of engineers passionate about sustainable mobility. In recent years, Shell has begun opening up the event to the public through offline labs at the Shell Eco-marathon in Europe and the Americas, an online Shell Energy Run Game on Facebook, and a series of blog posts and videos documenting behind-the-scenes action.
The initiative has achieved significant scale – 513 teams from 45 countries are participating in the Shell Eco-marathon this year.
Students spend a year in designing, building and testing their vehicles. Students can choose from two types of vehicles and seven types of fuel:
“The Prototype class focuses on maximum efficiency, while passenger comfort takes a back seat. The UrbanConcept class encourages more practical designs Cars enter one of seven categories to run on conventional petrol and diesel, biofuels, fuel made from natural gas (GTL), hydrogen, solar or electricity.”
Shell uses Facebook as its central platform of coordination, with invite-only groups for each region. Here, students and Shell representatives answer technical questions and clarify contest rules. In addition, Shell uses YouTube to share information around event logistics, technical engineering concepts, and even an animated video of the track.
Finally, students compete in the annual race on city streets or on a professional circuit:
“Over several days, teams make as many attempts as possible to travel the furthest on the equivalent of one litre of fuel. Cars drive a fixed number of laps around the circuit at a set speed. Organisers calculate their energy efficiency and name a winner in each class and for each energy source.”
Some schools and universities incorporate the eco-marathon into a course, or invite students to work on the project as part of their thesis. Others incorporate it as an extra-curricular activity and students receive no credit. In both cases, a faculty member usually acts as an advisor to the student team. Sometimes, students develop the cars over years, as older students graduate and new students join the teams. As a result, universities produce multiple, diverse eco-cars and students can build on past efforts.
The team at Chalmers University of Technology reflected:
“At the competition we realized that it was not that easy to complete a race, and definitely not to be competitive. Many teams had spent several years and (in some cases) several millions and it was clear that we would have to wait a few years before we could expect to be among the best.”
Indeed, some schools, like Purdue University, have been building eco cars since 1993 and participating in the Shell Eco-marathon since 2008. Purdue Solar Racing even showcased their eco car at the recent New York International Auto Show.
The Shell Eco-marathon is a good outlet for students to test their skills and creations, to face real world challenges and to explore a future in engineering and sustainable mobility.
A staff report in The News Star notes:
“The Tech students, who come from many different academic degree programs, participate in the project as volunteers and do not get class credit. They design, build, paint and test the cars on their own time, usually in the evenings, after class and on weekends. They also assist with fundraising and publicity. While employing skills they learn in the classroom, these students are also developing leadership and project management skills that will serve them throughout their careers.”
Engineering junior and participant John Rockwell reflected:
“There’s a lot of stuff I’ve learned on this team that I wouldn’t be able to normally. Working with companies and sponsors … you definitely don’t get that just sitting in a class.”
Journalist Christine Des Garennes reported:
“The prize is a trophy and $2,000, but the real reward, many [University of Illinois] team members said, has been the learning experience that has come along with designing the vehicle and working with a group of students with backgrounds in a wide range of subjects.”
Faculty advisor of the Saint Thomas Academy Experimental Vehicle Team Mark Westlake reflected on the experience:
“Members of your team tend to blossom when given enough time to fail. Students surprised me with how creative they were and how willing they are to learn new skills.”
Online, Shell engages people around the event through video series such as the two part “Road to Houston.” Structured like a reality show, the series documents the behind-the-scenes activity and challenges faced by the teams in preparing for the contest. Other video series feature the teams participating or cover live events at the various Shell Eco-Marathons. In addition, Shell partnered with National Geographic to cover the eco-marathon on National Geographic’s The Great Energy Challenge Blog. Participants and Shell community managers contribute to the blog. Many students also document their own experience and design process online on Facebook or on team websites and blogs (Chalmers University of Technology, Aston University).
In 2012, Shell launched a social game on Facebook, the Shell Energy Run Game, that enables people to participate in the Eco-marathon virtually. Players design their own car and race it on a virtual circuit. The game provides educational tips to help people increase their virtual car’s fuel efficiency, and incorporates elements like points, trophies and a leaderboard to keep people playing.
Offline, Shell has organized activations like the Mobility Footprint Zone at the Shell Eco-marathon Americas and the Het Lab at the Shell Eco-marathon Europe.
Writer Flori Meeks covered the experience in the Americas:
“New this year is an interactive learning experience for visitors. Activities include a “Mobility Footprint Zone” with a kinetic dance floor where visitors can race toy cars powered by salt water, a Formula 1 car display, a self-guided tour through Shell Eco-Marathon Americas and the mPowering Action Mobile Recording Studio, where visitors can record songs or messages about their energy solutions for the future.”
In Europe, Shell and creative agency Imagination used RFID cards to make the experience more interactive and memorable:
“Visitors used RFID cards to store photos, videos and data from their visit, and could afterwards ‘Replay the Day’ by entering their personal code on the micro-site.”
As collaborative social innovation programs become more common, thinkers are beginning to place more emphasis on measuring success and finding successful models.
Indeed, Ashraf Engineer, member of the MSLGROUP Insights Network, noted:
“I think [the Shell Eco-marathon is] a superb idea. The question is this: Will the competition translate into an actual ultra-fuel-efficient vehicle? The quest for such a vehicle has been on for decades and prototypes have been paraded in automobile shows for years. Yet, there are hardly any successful models.”
Participants note that the eco-marathon has helped inspire a new generation of environment conscious engineers. Several participants have gone on to intern or work not only at Shell, but also the larger engineering industry.
High school junior and participant Jake Nyquist reflected:
“It’s very valuable, especially for high school students. There are all sorts of students who would never consider going into engineering as a career, or looking at fuel consumption, without this.”
Bloggers and faculty advisors also note that the technology developed for the eco-marathon would eventually enter the mainstream.
Blogger Vijay noted:
“The competing vehicles are highly specialized and optimized for the event and not intended for every day use. The designs represent what can be achieved with current technology and offer a glimpse into the future of car design based on minimal environmental impact in a world with reduced oil reserves. Nevertheless, the work of the participants can still be used to show ways manufacturers could redesign their products.”
Purdue University team’s faculty advisor and mechanical engineering professor Galen King said:
“I don’t think we’ll see these cars on the road, but the tech used in them will always be incorporated. Carbon fiber material, computer-integrated control systems, electric propulsion—you’ll see all those components.”
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