Inside Look: Shell Eco-Marathon

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Last weekend the streets of Detroit were transformed. Filled with the unmistakable purr of little high-efficiency engines all competing in the Shell Eco-Marathon.


What is it?

EcomarathonShell Eco-Marathon is a competition where students from around the world gathered in Rotterdam, Manilla, or Detroit to pit their ultra-energy-efficient vehicles against one another.

But you don’t win this competition by being the fastest - you win by being the most efficient. Talk about the future of energy.

To win teams have drive six miles in under 25 minutes on less fuel than any other car in their category. Teams can compete with a prototype or urban concept car that runs on battery electric, hydrogen, alternative fuel, gasoline, or diesel.

EcomarthonIn the throes of the Americas competition, we caught up with three teams:

  • Eco Car from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada competing with an urban concept hydrogen car

  • Panterus Up from Universidad Panamericana in Mexico City, Mexico competing with a prototype battery electric car

  • EFICEM from the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Florianópolis, Brazil competing with a prototype battery electric car

Here’s our top take-aways from their stories:

Getting your car and team to this race takes serious commitment.

EcomarathonTake the Universidad Panamericana team from Mexico City. Four years ago they were the first Latin American team to be invited to Shell Eco-Marathon. Even through tough circumstances -  like not passing the safety inspection last year and having to seek out extra funding to build their new electronic controller - they have put in the hard work to return every year. Now they are back, their car is rolling, and they could not be more thrilled to be in Detroit.

As Samuel Bassani from the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina put it: “At the end of the day, you will always run into lots of problems. You need a strong team to keep you going.”

Details matter

Competing to be the most efficient means every fraction of an ounce you can shave off the weight of your car gets you a step closer to winning.

Student Mileage Competition.jpgThis year, the teams we spoke with from Mexico and Brazil were both competing with battery-electric prototype vehicles.  Universidad Panamericana team let us in on the crux of the challenge with going electric: “sometimes electric components can seem quite simple, but that means that to win you have to be very creative and learn to do a lot with few resources. You have to go beyond what people think of as mechanical engineering and see how you can improve your materials and components to make the best vehicle possible.”

Hydrogen cars allow for a bit more creativity says Balazs Gyenes, of University of Alberta’s Eco Car team. Compared to other categories, there is less competition for hydrogen cars so they are able to take more design risks. However, Shell Eco-Marathon has strict safety regulations for  hydrogen cars so if the teams aren’t careful with details - like how much hydrogen leakage they have - cars may not make it to the track.


“You have to want to learn more than you want to win,” - Balaz Gyenes from the University of Alberta. 

These students are thinking big

EcomarathonMotivating all of the teams we talked to was the opportunity to explore making more sustainable vehicles. Taking part in competitions like the Shell Eco-Marathon allows students to discover all the opportunities there are for technical improvement first hand.

For Samuel Bassani  it’s exciting to see the solutions they are using like carbon fiber, which makes cars lighter and more efficient, being used by major manufacturers like BMW. He would like to see the progress continue. He highlighted that in cities like Sao Paulo, Brazil the streets are jam packed with cars intended to hold five people that are only carrying one. In the future, he thinks we’ll see smaller cars, built for one or two people, that will be much more efficient.

EcomarathonIn Balazs Gyenes opinion, “the only thing the auto-industry has really changed in the last 20 years is putting a bluetooth adapter in the radio.” He is impressed with what his team has been able to accomplish technically while working on their car part time - in his mind the auto industry can devote more resources to making transportation more sustainable.

Gyenes admits that in North America, especially on his home turf in Alberta, “we have a people problem.” Like the people in his hometown who want inefficient trucks because they are loud and “sound cool.” He is hoping that people realize we can’t keep on the gas-guzzling road and that we can electrify the vehicle stock.

EcomarathonThe team from Mexico is looking forward to more affordable electric vehicles and some super hybrids in the future. They said it’s really important that companies like Shell are looking into the future and the change they know needs to happen.

The Shell Eco-Marathon brings all of these innovative young minds together.

Ask any participant and they will tell you that one of the best parts of the Shell Eco-Marathon is getting together with students from other teams and other countries. “It’s amazing to see all the prototypes and all the hard work that students put into their vehicles. It encourages you to work even harder,” remarked Hector Boscos.

Is efficiency and transportation your thing, or just looking for some awesome engineering experience? See what it takes to compete next year.