To get that efficiency, Shell started with an existing car, the T-25, designed by Gordon Murray. The designer actually started developing the car on his own time in the late ’90s while also working on Formula One racecars and McLaren road cars.
Still, its looks can be polarizing.
“It’s a very mixed reaction,” admits Timothy Limbrick, development technician at Gordon Murray Design. “If you come from an engineering point of view, then you can see the nature of the car and you can understand why it looks the way it looks. But then if you don’t know anything about the car, you might think that it’s crossing the line of what a car should actually look like.”
But the point of the design was to address the needs presented by increasing population and urbanization, according to Gunsel. “In the future, it’s estimated that we need twice the energy by 2050 that we are using today. More energy means more emissions, which we can’t afford to have. So we want to create solutions.”
So Murray and his technicians went to work removing weight from the car, such as switching from fiberglass to carbon fiber bodywork. This allows for thinner body panels and reduces stress on the chassis. The car’s look was developed to reduce aerodynamic friction, boasting a co-efficient of drag of just 0.29, while accommodating three adults and 5.7 cubic feet of luggage. The tubular steel chassis uses a cored composite structural floor and other weight saving tricks to tip the scale at a modest 1,200 pounds.
At the same time, Shell, tapped Geo Technologies’ Osamu Goto, also from Formula One, to modify a 660cc Mitsubishi three-cylinder all-aluminum engine to power the car. And it’s here that the car’s true mission is revealed.
Typically, hardware is developed independently of the lubricant and lubricant is developed independently of the hardware. But Shell changed that by making lubricants part of the initial design parameter.
“Our whole concept was around what could we do to reduce frictional losses,” Gunsel said. “In an internal combustion engine, you can lose up to 20 percent of the energy generated to internal friction. So if we can reduce it, we can increase the overall efficiency of the engine.”
Changing the engine’s surfaces and materials to accommodate low viscosity design allowed Shell to reduce friction by 30 percent. This in turn led to better fuel economy, which Shell estimates to be 89 mpg, 30 percent than the original engine. Best of all, the lubricants are developed from natural gas, not crude oil.
So yes, it’s efficient. But what’s it like to drive?
Actually, it’s a hoot, even if it isn’t very fast.
It starts from the moment you tip the front part of cab forward to get in it. That’s when you notice the solitary driver’s seat. Like a Formula One racecar, it’s mounted in the center of the vehicle, which affords a good view in all directions. The seating position is comfortably high, very much like sitting in a van. There are two additional seats that straddle the driver’s seat. However, squeezing into them is challenging and when occupied, passengers’ legs double as the driver’s armrest.
Once underway, you’ll find the engine is vocal beast, yet not overly powerful. Rated at 43 horsepower, it’s mated to a five-speed automated manual transmission that turns in a leisurely 0-62 mph time of 15.8 seconds. Yet, at city speeds it feels much quicker thanks to its expansive use of glass. It has a perky feel that would be a blast while popping around town, as long as you don’t mind the noise. And its minimal weight means that power steering isn’t needed, although you’ll miss it when pulling out of a parking spot.
The fully independent suspension and 13-inch tires provide adequate grip, although its short-yet-tall proportions make cornering feel more dangerous than it actually is. And, when you’re done, you simply open the canopy, stand up and step out.
It’s decidedly different experience, but that’s the whole point of the exercise.
“There’s no one technology or one company that can come up with the silver bullet. You need to be able to work with partnerships across the different sectors,” Gunsel said.
“You can’t wait for electric vehicles to take over in several decades as our sole environmental solution. You need to use the energy that’s available to us today in the most efficient way and this is a good demonstration of what we can do today to help tomorrow.”
SHELL CONCEPT CAR
- Engine: 660cc three-cylinder with variable valve timing
- Horsepower: 43
- Torque: 47 lbs.-ft.
- Fuel economy: 89 mpg (estimated)
- Length: 98.4 inches
- Width: 53.1 inches
- Height: 63 inches
- Cargo capacity: 5.7-25.4 cubic feet
- Curb weight: 1,200 pounds