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Shell Concept Car proves more efficiency can be unlocked from the internal combustion engine

By Aaron Stone

Global sales of electric vehicles (EV) increased 42% in 2016, to a total of 773,600 units, a growth rate 20 times faster than the overall market. December 2016 also marked a significant milestone in the category with total EVs and plug in hybrids exceeding two million for the first time, according to the Electric Vehicles World Sales database.

A Bloomberg New Energy Finance report predicts 35% of new light duty vehicle sales will be electric by 2040, a volume of 41 million, forcing big hitters in the automobile manufacturing industry such as Toyota, GM, Mitsubishi, BMW, Volkswagen and Tesla to invest heavily in alternative powertrains as they scramble to gain ascendancy in the potentially lucrative market.

A drop in the price of EVs, parity with gasoline-driven equivalents is forecast by 2022, increased availability, and money saving potential at the pump are all fuelling increased consumer demand. Clearly, the overwhelming stimulus is the impact of hydrocarbon fuelled vehicles and their emissions on the environment. The transport sector accounts for 25% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

The growing appetite for alternative powertrains will surely deliver a sizeable impact on sustainability moving forward. Are we witnessing the slow and painful death of the internal combustion engine, as we strive to make an impression on emission reduction?

Despite rapid growth in sales of EVs in 2016, the vehicles only account for 0.86% market share. Speaking at F+L Week 2017, Robert Mainwaring, technology manager for innovation at Shell’s Lubricants Technology Group, presented the Shell Concept car, a car which focuses on overall energy footprint and highlights the real virtues of collaboration between vehicle, engine and lubricant specialists.

The concept car is the result of a smart collaboration between Shell, with their expertise in lubricants, Geo Technology with their deep knowledge of engines, and Gordon Murray Design and their vehicle design capability with a long heritage associated with Formula 1 cars. The group set about challenging design paradigms associated with engine-powered cars manufactured from pressed steel.

Shell Concept Car proves more efficiency can be unlocked from the internal combustion engineThe brief was to deliver a car that was small, compact, really efficient, affordable and compatible with city use. Importantly, the approach was to use materials and technology that is currently available. This, Mainwaring says, has the advantage of being “something you can actually do today” and hence “have a real chance of making a material and still transformational change.”

According to Shell, three key motivations influenced the design of the concept car: A world trend towards urbanisation, 75% of the world’s forecast 9 billion population is expected to live in cities by 2050, an increased desire for personal transport, and a need to reduce energy usage.

The concept car this partnership has delivered using conventional drivetrain technology is truly remarkable. An amazingly efficient 100 miles to the gallon (100 km per 2.8 litres), the ability to transport three people, and a design compatible with a retail price of USD10,000 whilst still delivering a profit to the OEM.

Despite the staggering improvements in fuel economy delivered, Mainwaring says their approach to efficiency is not simply about increasing miles per gallon. The construction of the concept car adopted a more holistic approach considering materials, manufacturing processes, usage and recycling to minimise the overall CO2 footprint of the car. To illustrate their environmentally sympathetic approach, Mainwaring revealed the concept car can be manufactured and driven for 107,000 km and still not reach the energy footprint required to simply manufacture a standard sport utility vehicle (SUV).

The vehicle is powered by a three cylinder, 660 cc kei1 car engine based on a unit provided by Mitsubishi. Each of the frictional components in the engine were ‘thrown away’ and then reverse engineered alongside the lubricant to minimise friction and hence energy loss.

Shell labels this co-operative approach to hardware and fluid design as co-engineering. In this case it led to a 0W-12 lubricant – one of the lowest viscosity grades in the latest version of SAE J300 industry specification.

While the use of a low viscosity fluid may create anxiety amongst some manufacturers about reductions in film thickness, Mainwaring says the “consequences of reducing viscosity are not as severe as some people might be inclined to think.” He believes “many of the world’s OEMs are operating extremely conservatively, they don’t actually know where the edge is,” suggesting large increases in efficiency are available with a less conservative approach.

A series of weight saving and design initiatives were key to on road efficiency. The former motor racing specialists taking “F1 technology and transferring it to a road vehicle at low cost.” This obsession on weight reduction seems to have paid dividends – delivering a drive-ready weight of 550 kgs. By way of comparison, current European city cars manufactured from pressed steel weigh approximately 1,000 kgs.

While the seating configuration has a taxi driver feel to it, a single seat up front with two passengers behind, the creators say the configuration accounts for the insight that most individuals drive alone. The tiny frontal area and tailored rear also delivered an impressive drag coefficient of under 0.3, helping ensure the car operates comfortably on the correct side of the 95 grams of CO2 per kilometre new car target from 2020, using technology that is readily available.

The Shell Concept Car experiment has seemingly delivered to brief with a compact, affordable and ultra-efficient vehicle; just don’t expect to see it on the road any time soon. Mainwaring says the trial was part of a ‘thought leadership paper on wheels,’ with no immediate plans for commercial production. One thing is for sure, it is astonishing just how much improvement can be driven by the innovative use of current materials, processes and fluids.

1. A kei car is a Japanese category of small vehicles, including passenger cars, micro-vans and pickup trucks.