The air bag: tackling the eco challenges of fuel consumption

Kevin Hackett considers environmentally friendly driving after visiting the Philippines to witness the Shell Eco-marathon.

A diesel-powered vehicle from the Higher Colleges of Technology Ruwais competing at the Shell Eco-marathon. Jake Verzosa / AP Images for Shell
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Last week, I was privileged to visit Manila in the Philippines to witness first-hand the exploits of dozens of students as they competed in the Shell Eco-marathon. The name of the game was parsimonious energy consumption and, as the various universities took to the city street track in their incredibly diverse machines, there was a faint flicker of hope in the air for humanity.

Scientific progress means that most of us can move around our planet with incredible ease, live in comfort, earn a decent wage and drive modern cars that are safe, luxurious and efficient. As a child of the 1970s, the things that I now get to experience are enough to fry my brain if I think about them for too long. Yet for all the good things that technology has brought, there are incredibly negative aspects, too.

No matter where you stand on the debate of climate change, there’s no getting around the fact that this planet’s natural resources are finite. One day, oil, gas and uranium will run out and, unless we change the way in which we generate and use energy, we will return to a primitive way of life not seen for millennia. Shell knows this as much as anyone and, for decades, has been championing fuel efficiency, with the annual Eco-marathon representing the jewel in its enviro-PR crown.

The Asia event, held for the first time in Manila (it was previously in Malaysia), brought together the most enquiring minds from the entire region, including the Middle East. Four days long, it was also used as a platform for debate and discussion between some of the world’s most outspoken and knowledgeable experts on climate change, population issues and energy crisis management. All carried out under the gaze of television cameras, hundreds of bloggers, tweeters, activists and the plain curious, it was entirely obvious that there are no clear answers to the very real problems.

It was during a question-and-answer session with Shell’s Mark Gainsborough, who is its executive vice president for commercial operations, that I got an insight into the perceived problems facing us in the Middle East. It was all very well, I suggested, to have students here, applying their scientific know-how in the pursuit of fuel economy, but in a region like ours, what can be done to further the cause? We drive V8s and V12s, we don’t care about emissions or the price of fuel – it’s irrelevant.

“You’re quite right,” he said. “Last year, driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi for the Grand Prix, for the first time I saw six Ferraris together in one petrol station. So, yes, there’s money and there’s fuel so cheap that nobody thinks twice about his or her consumption. But there has to come a time when authorities sit up and take notice. And what we’ve seen in other parts of the world is that the price of fuel directly impacts the behaviour of the majority, even in wealthy countries. When fuel costs are subsidised, there is little hope of changing the ways of most consumers.”

The price of fuel in this part of the world is unlikely to skyrocket any time soon and, like me, you’ll be glad about that. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do our bit for the environment. I’m not talking about recycling old newspapers or properly disposing of the batteries from your remote control. I’m talking about the way that we drive.

Keeping our tyres at the right pressures, for example, improves fuel efficiency. Smooth inputs, avoiding aggressive braking or acceleration, keeping our windows closed, not having flags and the like protruding from our cars’ bodywork – they all contribute to greater fuel efficiency and, more than anything I saw at Manila, that is what will stay with me personally. Don’t think that there’s nothing that you can do to help – it’s in the power of all of us to improve our futures. Our roads would be a lot safer, too, if driving habits were changed – now wouldn’t that be ­satisfying?

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