• Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2015 Zoticus

    The Zoticus car, made by a team from University of British Columbia, sits on the track during the final day of the Shell Eco-marathon Americas 2015 in Detroit, Mich., in 2015. (Photo: Rick Osentoski/AP Images for Shell)

In just over a month, hundreds of students from universities and high schools across North and South America will flock to Detroit to participate in the annual Shell Eco-marathon Americas, happening April 27-30.

Shell Eco-marathon is all about fuel efficiency — students compete to see whose custom-built vehicle can travel furthest using the least amount of energy. In past years, Canadian teams, like Université Laval and the University of Toronto, have placed first on-track, as well as winning awards off-track.

“It’s the opportunity to put the concepts and theories that they learn in class into real world practise,” says Pamela Rosen, general manager for Shell Eco-marathon Americas (SEMA).

As a global competition, Shell Eco-marathon has existed for more than 30 years, but the Americas-wide event began in 2007 with 19 teams competing. For 2017, SEMA has received over 190 applications, which they’ve had to narrow down to 125 teams.

“We want to encourage them in the fields of science, engineering, mathematics, and technology,” says Adrian Juergens, technical director for SEMA. “I’ve had some one-on-one talks with students who have never thought about entering engineering, and because of their involvement with the Eco-marathon they’ve done a complete 180.”

Juergens works with the students all year long, providing guidance and suggestions to ensure that the vehicles are safe and meet technical requirements. Students compete in two vehicle categories. The Prototype category focuses on efficiency — the vehicle is sleek, lightweight and drives low to the ground.

“From a practical standpoint, those prototype vehicles that get phenomenal energy-efficiency ratings aren’t really going to be roadworthy cars that could practically go into production,” says Rosen.

That is why in 2009, Shell introduced a second vehicle category called Urban Concept. The requirements for these vehicles are a little higher. They need to have headlights, taillights, windshield wipers and turn indicators, as well as more robust brakes to account for the heavier weight of the vehicle. The design should also include a passenger seat, a conventional door, and trunk space.

“We were trying to push the teams to create a car that could be on the road today, like a smart car,” says Juergens.

This year, Shell has also introduced the Driver’s World Championship, which takes the top finishers from the Urban Concept category and puts them in a head-to-head race. The three category winners from the Americas competition will be invited to go to London, England in May to compete against the top teams from Shell Eco-marathon Europe and Shell Eco-marathon Asia.

“The hope is that these young students realize that they are going to be the answers for future sustainable mobility,” says Juergens.

The world population is growing rapidly and transportation features heavily in discussions about the future of energy use. When SEMA first started out, the choice of energies for propulsion was limited to gasoline, diesel and biofuel. For renewable energy, they had a solar category.

“Over time, what we’ve seen is a growth in the sort of energy that you might see in cars of the future,” says Rosen. “What that means is that solar has fallen off, because from a mobility and transportation perspective it’s not something that the automakers are looking at seriously.”

Since then, solar has been replaced by new alternative energies, introducing the hydrogen fuel-cell and battery electric categories.

“We’re always looking for opportunities to increase the technology requirements and push teams to come up with out-of-the-box thinking,” says Juergens. “One of the great aspects of this event is that teams have so much flexibility to experiment.”

The students retain all rights to their designs and can foreseeably go on to work for an original equipment manufacturer and bring those ideas to a wider audience. The Eco-marathon offers an opportunity for students to connect with different event partners, either from a recruitment perspective or even just for discussions. Some former students have ended up at Tesla or at Chrysler, and others have been entrepreneurial and started their own businesses.

“One thing that I think goes underrecognized is the ability of these students to have a broad integrated team that crosses a lot of functions,” says Rosen. Students register in the marathon for free, but to build their vehicle they raise their own money and get their own sponsors.

“They’ve got team members that are really great at pitching to sponsors and getting value out of their projects and that’s a skill that’s going to stick with them forever,” says Rosen. “It’s not just about the technical aspects but also that ability to bring others along into that vision you have for the future.”

This article was created and published with the financial support of Shell Canada Limited.