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Project M: Shell Teams With Gordon Murray on a City Car Concept

There’s loads of life left in the good ol’ internal-combustion engine, especially as it pertains to moving folks around in our increasingly populous, decreasingly affluent megacities in the decades to come. To help drive this point home, Shell Lubricants and Fuels reunited the team that collaborated to produce the Honda-powered F1 cars that carried Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost to victory in all but one Grand Prix race in 1988, but this time their mission is to build an ultra-efficient, ultra-affordable city car concept.

The other players include Osamu Goto, the former director of Honda F1 and R&D manager on Ferrari‘s F1 team who has since launched a Switzerland-based engine-tech company called Geo Technology, and Gordon Murray, whose F1 team R&D resume includes stints at Brabham from 1969-’86 and at McLaren from ’87-’06. His firm, Gordon Murray Design, built a pair of gas- and electric-powered city-car concepts in 2010 called the T.25 and T.27, respectively. They largely served as a showcase for Murray’s iStream production process, which was said to greatly lower the cost and energy required to produce a car. Shell provided high-tech, low-friction lubricants for the T.25, but only after the vehicle and driveline were designed. In that car, the lubrication was credited with improving fuel economy by 6.5 percent.

Shell has instigated Project M as a further development/refinement/redesign of GMD’s T.25 to showcase what improvements can still be made by coengineering the powertrain and lubricants. According to Shell’s VP of lubricant technology, Selda Gunsel, Project M is not meant to become a production car but rather to serve as a “thought leadership paper on wheels,” optimizing all areas of the vehicle design, including aerodynamics, lightweight materials, recyclability, cradle-to-grave environmental impact, and friction. “Twenty percent of the energy of combustion has typically gone to friction,” Gunsel points out. By leveraging this coengineering opportunity, Shell intends to further reduce that figure. (Shell has ongoing coengineering operations in place at BMW Motorsport and Chrysler.)

The engine that will serve as the basis for Project M is a naturally aspirated, gasoline-powered, 660cc Mitsubishi I-3 from a Japanese-market “kei” car, but with all internal components greatly redesigned. For reasons of cost, it will eschew pricy friction/energy reducers like a variable-output oil pump and auto start-stop, though it will feature hydraulic cam phasers. Much of the emphasis will be on specialized coatings, and the engine will feature smaller-diameter, wider journal bearings for items such as the crank and camshafts.

Just as the T.25 concept utilized a then-experimental 0W-10-weight motor oil, Project M will likely use a synthetic 0W-8 oil derived entirely from natural gas. Shell now has a facility in Qatar that assembles long-chain lubricant hydrocarbons from simple, clean methane (CH4) gas rather than busting up very long crude-oil hydrocarbons and then struggling to remove sulfur, metals, and other impurities. (You can currently buy such motor oils in weights ranging from 0W-20 to 5W-50, branded Pennzoil Platinum with PurePlus Technology.) Unique additives tailored to Project M’s anticipated duty cycle are expected to improve the lubricants’ contribution to fuel economy improvement. Gas-to-liquid (GTL) lubricants will also be utilized in the transmission fluid and axle bearing grease.

Gordon Murray Design is handling things such as lightweighting and vehicle safety systems. The T.25 reportedly achieved Euro NCAP 4 ratings, and the new body and chassis are said to employ special low-cost honeycomb composites. The team anticipates innovating some smartphone apps to help further optimize lifetime vehicle efficiency. Although the team was short on specifics of further optimization opportunities, Gunsel says the design phase was largely concluded when the project was announced at the Shell Eco-marathon in Detroit (April 10-13) and the team is ready to commence construction with the goal of unveiling the running concept in Shanghai this November. Shell has set up a Web site to follow the project’s progress and to post suggestions for further optimization.