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Shell Oil Co.'s Marvin Odum was among the more than one dozen panelists offering perspectives on urban sustainability at the Shell Powering Progress Together program in Detroit.

Shell Oil conference focuses on transportation alternatives

Demand for energy is increasing as more and more people live in urban environments. The growth of global megacities “is like adding two Detroit [populations, about 700,000 people] every week for the next 30 years,” said Marvin Odum, President of Shell Oil Co., at the recent Powering Progress Together program in Detroit.

The Shell-sponsored event focused on urban sustainability and featured diverse panel discussions that included top automotive engineers, alternative-transportation entrepreneurs, and environmentalists.

Odum noted that for a growing number of companies, the energy-consumption equation is framed within an environmental context.

“We advocate very openly for things like a price on carbon, which is why we already put that [carbon tax] on our own projects,” he said, referencing a $40 per ton price applied to Shell's research programs and the approximately $30 billion spent on new projects every year.

The ‘carbon cost’ is one of many evaluation metrics. “It allows us to compare a deep-water Gulf of Mexico project to an oil sands project in Canada or a liquefied natural gas project in the Middle East. You get a common basis for understanding—certainly on the aspect of CO2 emissions—as to how projects rank with each other,” Odum said during an interview with Automotive Engineering.

Driverless and semi-automated vehicles, as SAE readers realize, are no longer a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, and they were predictably a hot topic at the Shell conference. Dr. J. Gary Smyth, Executive Director of Global Research and Development at General Motors, said sensing technologies, digital mapping and other innovations are ushering in an era of connected, intelligent vehicles.

“By the end of this decade, we will have all the technologies that allow a future autonomous (vehicle) world. It’s such a pivotal time,” Dr. Smyth observed.

Alternative transportation solutions on a far simpler end of the technology spectrum also are gaining traction. Amanda Eaken, Deputy Director of Urban Solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, recently sold her car. So plans for a getaway weekend of biking and other activities were made with a rental car as the transportation mode to and from the destination.

“Then we realized we could actually just bike there. So we cancelled the car reservation, and we just rode our bikes to where we were going,” said Eaken, “When you pay for [vehicle] use, you actually do make different decisions.”

When biking or walking isn’t a mobility option, mass transit or an electrified or other personal vehicle are possibilities. Transportation entrepreneur Robin Chase said a one-size-fits-all-approach to highway traveling is starting to fade.

“People are choosing the car that fits the trip,” said Chase, the co-founder of Zipcar, the world’s largest car sharing company. She said Zipcar research shows that each shared car replaces 15 personal cars, while noting that an individual travels about 60% fewer miles when sharing and paying in real-time.

The panel discussions were a prelude to the Shell Eco-Marathon Americas 2015 competition, an annual event that challenges high school and college students to design, build, and test energy-efficient vehicles. For the first time, teams drove their unique high-mileage vehicles on a city-streets route through Detroit.

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