Shell's Project M Concept Car
Justin Leighton
By David Z. Morris
April 24, 2016

In celebration of Earth Day, Shell revealed its Project M concept car on Friday. The car boasts an array of laudable features—it can be recycled at the end of its life, and its tweaked gasoline engine, small size, and “bespoke” lubes help it achieve a claimed 107 mpg fuel efficiency, when it stays at a steady 45 miles an hour. Shell says that over its life cycle, the car would use 34% less energy than a typical vehicle.

That’s impressive on its face, and part of Shell’s agenda here is clearly to make the case that its main product—gasoline—can still fuel an environmentally friendly vehicle.

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But one comparison is all it takes to put Project M in a less flattering light. Because guess what else gets the equivalent of up to 100 miles to the gallon? The Tesla Model S.

(Of course, the Model S doesn’t actually burn gasoline, so the comparison relies on a measure known as Miles Per Gallon Equivalent, or MPGe. It’s an EPA standard saying that 1 gallon of gas is equivalent to 33.7 kilowatt hours of stored electrical energy. Basically, it allows a rough comparison of the overall energy efficiency of vehicles, regardless of their energy source.)

While they may be comparably efficient, the Model S and the Project M car aren’t even in the same ballpark as cars. The Model S seats five people, while the Project M seats 3, with what looks like fairly constrained headroom. The Model S notoriously goes from 0-60 in as little as 2.8 seconds—faster than some models of the McLaren supercar. The Project M’s time off the blocks is reportedly 15.8 seconds.

For reference, that’s almost six seconds slower than a 1994 Chevy Lumina minivan.

And finally, of course, the Tesla can run on solar energy—possibly in the not very distant future.

In short, Shell has achieved some undeniably admirable efficiencies by making major compromises on the performance and comfort that people want in cars that they’re willing to actually drive. Coming in the wake of the phenomenally successful rollout of Tesla’s new Model 3, Project M smacks of a symbolic rearguard action against a technology that’s just fundamentally superior.

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Of course, at least Shell is trying to defend its business model by offering real alternatives. It’s heartbreaking to have to dismiss what was obviously a lot of hard work by some very talented engineers, including some with backgrounds in Formula One. And the project is certainly more admirable than the approach taken by Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, and possibly Daimler and Peugeot, which was simply to lie about their cars’ fuel efficiency.

But in the end, good intentions or bad, it all points towards the same conclusion: unless we’re willing to squeeze into glorified golf carts, gas cars have gotten as efficient as they’re going to get.

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