Little concept car leading the way through the urban transport minefield

Shell's chief scientist of mobility Dr Wolfgang Warnecke with the little concept car on display at Singapore.
ROB MAETZIG

Shell's chief scientist of mobility Dr Wolfgang Warnecke with the little concept car on display at Singapore.

Want some scary figures? How about these.

By 2050 our planet is expected to be home to more than nine billion people, three-quarters of whom will live in cities. As a result, the number of cars on our roads will double to more than two billion - and the amount of energy needed in the transport sector is forecast to increase by 70 per cent.

Therein lies a massive challenge. Even today, 25 per cent of all the world's carbon dioxide emissions come from the transport sector, and most of it pours out of the exhausts of the vehicles we drive.

Fairfax journalist Rob Maetzig pictured inside the Shell Concept Car
SUPPLIED

Fairfax journalist Rob Maetzig pictured inside the Shell Concept Car

All the climate change experts agree that urgent action is required to drastically reduce the world's carbon emissions. So how are we going to cope with the environmental effects of another billion vehicles on our roads over the next three decades? Particularly since most of these vehicles will be massed, bumper-to-bumper, in our cities?

READ MORE: The cute little fuel-saving city car from Shell that points to the future

 
Front seat centrally located - most motorists travel alone to work, and driver can get in and out of the car from either ...
ROB MAETZIG

Front seat centrally located - most motorists travel alone to work, and driver can get in and out of the car from either side.

And don't think New Zealand is removed from this challenge. We are a part of Oceania, which is second only to USA in the amount of carbon emissions we produce on a per head of population basis. It's all thanks to our lack of public transport, our consequent habit of driving everywhere, and our very high vehicle ownership.

A landmark forum has just been held in Singapore in an attempt to address all of this. Called Powering Progress Together and organised by the energy multinational Royal Dutch Shell, it brought together dozens of representatives from government, business, academia and non-profit organisations to discuss the world's future energy challenges.

"Changes in energy use need to happen in every section of society," said John Abbott, a member of Royal Dutch Shell's executive committee. He described it as the world's most important challenge of the modern age - how to meet global demand for significantly more energy, but at the same time achieve zero nett carbon emissions.

The Shell Eco Car.
SUPPLIED

The Shell Eco Car.

Speakers agreed that new ways of doing business, new technologies, new partnerships and especially collaboration will all be key to balancing rapidly growing energy needs with lower emissions.

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The forum was the opening event of a four-day festival called Make the Future Singapore, that featured a series of bright energy ideas and solutions to help address the global energy challenge.

And right in the centre of the festival venue was one display that underlined everything the occasion was all about - a little concept city car.

This frontal view shows just how narrow the little three-seater is.
ROB MAETZIG

This frontal view shows just how narrow the little three-seater is.

This vehicle, called the Shell Concept Car, is the result of a unique collaboration between three leaders in the world's transport sector: Shell with its expertise in lubricants, engine specialists Geo Technology, and vehicle design experts Gordon Murray Design.

The brief for the project was simple - to use the best technology available today to design and build a prototype car that, if it ever went into production, would be both energy efficient and affordable.

The result is quite remarkable. Thanks to innovative and low-carbon manufacturing processes and the use of fewer components than other cars, which would make it less energy-intensive to build, it is estimated the car would deliver a 34 per cent reduction in primary energy use over its entire life cycle when compared to a typical city car.

In fact, its creators claim that you could build the car and drive it more than 100,000 kilometres, and it would still use less energy than it currently takes to make, then ship a typical SUV to a showroom.

Dr Wolfgang Warnecke, who goes by the intriguing title of Shell's chief scientist of mobility, told Fairfax the idea behind creation of the concept car was to push the boundaries of what a car with an internal combustion engine can do.

"We asked how it could contribute to mobility in cities, based on conventional drivetrain technology. So we decided that it should be able to carry up to three people, weigh less than 600kg, do at least 100 miles per gallon (2.6L/100km), and cost no  more than $10,000."

All of that has been achieved. Thanks to a series of weight-saving initiatives including even the use of lightweight paint, the Shell Concept Car actually weighs in at 550kg which is about 250kg lighter than a Smart car, and thanks to its diminutive 2.5m length it has a turning circle of just 6 metres - which its makers say would allow it to turn full circle inside the clock face of London's iconic Big Ben.

The car is powered by a 660cc three cylinder Mitsubishi engine with most of its friction-inducing internal components redesigned, and the transmission is a five-speed automatic from a Smart. The engine's oil is super-thin with a grade in the OW-12 range, which is so low that current industry specifications do not recognise it 

The seating configuration comprises a single centrally-located front seat - mainly because studies show most motorists drive alone, but also so its makers would not need to bother with building left- and right-hand drive models - flanked by two rear seats, and you don't swing open the doors - the whole front end folds forward so the vehicle can be parked in the tightest parking places.

Here's some more useless information: the car's creators say it is so compact that five of them could be lined up side by side between the posts of a football goal.

Will it ever get built? Its creators have no plans to do so, but they do claim that with small adaptations, a manufacturer could put  it into large-scale production by 2020.

"I suppose you could say that at this stage the car is a thought leadership paper on wheels," said Dr Warnecke.

"I believe the future will see emissions-free mobility - but that will take quite some time to achieve. Meanwhile, this car shows what can be done with the ordinary internal combustion engine."

 - Stuff

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