DETROIT—With the backdrop of 114 high school and college student teams thronging Cobo Hall to compete in the Shell Eco-marathon, the big oil company said it would co-build and deliver an ultra-compact, fuel-efficient city car by next November.

Here's a mockup of Shell's city car, part of the Shell Experience exhibit in Detroit. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It might be assumed that oil companies would want us to drive gas guzzlers — they make more money that way — but that scenario is counter to Shell’s emerging world view. We face a world of 9 billion people in 2050, with 75 percent of them living in cities, said Wolfgang Warnecke, Shell’s chief scientist of mobility. Every week, there are another 1 million city dwellers. They’ll need small, fuel-efficient urban cars.

Shell Eco Marathon begins

And they're off at the Shell Eco Marathon. (Photo: Shell)

“We’ll see a dramatic move from country to city,” Warnecke said, and a consequent need for low carbon fuels. At a forum on fuel innovations the company sponsored, I was surprised to learn that Shell now has more resources in natural gas than it does in oil. The company is working on biomass fuels and has a hydrogen division that has built three pumping stations in California.

But about that city car, code named Project M (for Mass). It’s supposed to seat three comfortably, has a target weight of just 1,320 pounds (possibly using aluminum, carbon fiber and other lightweight materials) and achieve 83 mpg. Oh, and it should cost less than $15,000, too.

Shell's Selda Gunsel talks up the city car concept.

Shell's Selda Gunsel talks up the city car concept. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

According to Selda Gunsel, a vice president for lubricants at Shell, the car won’t solve all our future transportation questions, but “it will demonstrate what’s feasible today.”

No, Shell isn’t going to go into the car business. Google and Apple may not either. But Gunsel did say that Shell would be glad to license the car if a manufacturer is interested.

Student teams at the kickoff of the Eco Marathon.

Student teams at the kickoff of the Eco Marathon. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Shell has some heavy friends on the project. The company first partnered with England’s Gordon Murray Design for the T25 car in 2010. In British testing, that concept vehicle achieved 97 mpg. Shell also brought another company into Project M with Formula One experience, engine designer Geo Technology. The three worked together on a Honda-powered race car that had a winning season for Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in 1988.

 Michelin Man at Eco Marathon

The Michelin Man? What was he doing here? (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

From racing to economy cars? It makes sense, because a lot of innovation has come from the track.

Meanwhile, down at the Eco Marathon, I stopped by the indoor paddock of Mater Dei High School in Evansville, Indiana, a team that has twice won first place in the Urban Concept category. These aren’t registerable street cars, but tiny and stripped bare-bones economy vehicles. Wade Wilmes, a sophomore, told me the car — which weighs just 91 kilograms — has achieved 901.2 miles per gallon.

This was the pace car for the kick-off parade, which featured a local high school band.

This was the pace car for the kick-off parade, which featured a local high school band. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Against that lofty achievements, Shell’s 83 mpg seems positively achievable. But Shell’s car will likely have a stereo, windshield wipers, and seats that consist of something more than a bare sheet of perforated aluminum. Here's a closer look at the Eco Marathon on video:

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.