For UAE’s university students, a chance to drive innovation in green transport

The competition will take place in Singapore with students, including three teams from the UAE, competing to drive the farthest distance on the least amount of energy.

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How will cars of the future look?

An event starting today and taking place until Sunday will provide a little preview of what that future might have in store – the Shell Eco-marathon.

It began 78 years ago as a friendly competition among the company’s American employees over who could travel further on the least amount of fuel. The annual event has since expanded from the Americas to Asia and Europe. And with it, the opportunity to drive innovation.

Konstantinos Laskaris competed in the event five years ago. Now he is the chief motor engineer at Tesla, a company that is pushing boundaries for the vehicle industry. That is what the Eco-marathon is all about – fostering innovation for tomorrow.

The competition will take place in Singapore with students, including three teams from the UAE, competing to drive the farthest distance on the least amount of energy. Some will drive ultra-efficient petrol and diesel cars. Others will drive cars powered by hydrogen, liquefied natural gas, ethanol and lithium batteries.

While it is fun, the event represents much more.

Climate change poses a challenge and opportunity to each of us. The UAE is working to address this by implementing its Energy Plan 2050, aiming to slash carbon dioxide emissions by 70 per cent.

The world is transitioning to lower-carbon forms of energy, and transport must be at the heart of this transition.

The development of lower-carbon fuels for our cars, lorries, ships and planes is critical to global efforts to tackle climate change. Transport accounts for 28 per cent of the world’s energy consumption.

Today there are about 1 billion passenger vehicles on the roads globally. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects this number to reach about 2 billion by 2040.

It is crucial to cut emissions by boosting the efficiency of vehicles. Yet there is no simple, single answer when more than 90 per cent of transport runs on liquid fuels as it does today.

The world will need mass-produced and affordable battery-electric cars; it will need hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles too, with their greater range and quicker refuelling. The infrastructure to support these vehicles must be put in place. And most importantly, consumers must be willing to make the change.

Electric vehicles have made much progress but there is a long way to go. According to the IEA there are now more than 1.26 million electric cars, a global market share of about 0.1 per cent.

Tesla says it plans to sell 500,000 electric cars a year. Using current technology, it would require about two-thirds of the world’s annual lithium production for its batteries. Supplies of other minerals such as cobalt could also come under pressure. And with more than a billion cars on the roads, 500,000 is, in any case, less than one two-thousandth of the world’s fleet.

An electric car is only as clean as the source of its electricity. That means lower-carbon natural gas power generation or renewable energy, or a combination of both.

A global move towards lower-emission transport will be helped by cleaner and more economical fuels, more efficient lubricants and better engines. Low-carbon biofuels will be important too. The next generation of this technology will be able to convert waste directly to fuel.

Such innovations, among many others, will help the world make the transition to a low-carbon and more energy-efficient future.

Ultimately, if the huge transport sector is going to be transformed successfully, we will need all the creativity we can muster among the designers and engineers of the future.

This week’s Eco-marathon will have 134 student teams taking part from 20 Asia-Pacific countries, including 16 Mena teams. For years university students from across the UAE have placed among the top teams.

Perhaps among them are people who will go on to help revolutionise transport for a low-carbon future.

John Abbott is downstream director for Royal Dutch Shell.

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