Racing car

The race for cleaner cars

Dr Wolfgang Warnecke is a lifelong fan of motorsports. He is also convinced that the quest for innovation and better performance in motorsports can speed the development of the lower-carbon fuels the world needs to reduce transport emissions. Shell’s Chief Scientist for Mobility talks to Inside Energy.

By Jamie Willett on Jul 7, 2019

The 24 hours of Le Mans endurance race in France and the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the UK recently finished. Both are exciting events, that celebrate motorsports and cars. How are motorsports moving into low-carbon mobility?

Festivals like Goodwood are great for bringing to life the world of historic race cars. But they also showcase innovation and the future, such as autonomous racing cars.

And races like Le Mans have massively reduced fuel consumption - by around 75% over the past 50 years - through reduced engine capacity, better aerodynamics and the introduction of diesel and hybrid engines.

I worked for three years with the ruling body of Formula 1, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, and the organisers of the Le Mans, to evaluate using hydrogen as a fuel in endurance races. 

So I was happy to see the first hydrogen-powered prototype car make a lap before the start of Le Mans this year. There are now plans to include hydrogen cars in 2024. That is at least some progress towards a more sustainable future for motorsport. 

In Formula 1, the easiest way to reduce carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions is to use more advanced biofuels, which are made from non-food biomass, such as plant materials and waste and which do not compete with food production for land. 

Shell is using new advanced biofuels in our Formula 1 fuels for Ferrari, and we support using even higher concentrations in the future, of around 20% compared to less than 10% today. 

We also sponsor teams competing in Formula E for battery-electric cars. But so far, Formula E races are only for short distances because of the limit to the energy that can be stored in the batteries. 

wolfgang wenercke standing
Wolfgang Wernecke: "My main mission is to provide a solution that eventually offers reduced emissions from transport"

Transport accounts for around 25% of global carbon dioxide emissions. How can transport be cleaner?

The world needs to reduce emissions from all types of transport. That includes CO₂ emissions and emissions of other air pollutants that are harmful to human health.

In my role at Shell, my main mission is to provide a solution that eventually offers reduced emissions from transport.

Today, the main options are battery electric, hydrogen fuel cell, advanced biofuels made from biomass and synthetic liquid fuels. These synthetic fuels are produced from carbon dioxide, water and electricity powered by renewable energy.

They produce low emissions and can replace conventional fuels in internal combustions engines. But it is a costly and complex process to produce them.

Which are the most promising options?

It depends on the type of transport and how it is needed. For example, when it comes to passenger cars, the larger the vehicle, and the more kilometres it travels, the more suitable it is for hydrogen fuel cells.

The smaller the vehicle, and the fewer kilometres it travels, the more suitable it is for battery electric.

The longer distances are the sweet spot for hydrogen cars. Hydrogen is light and can store far more energy than batteries. 

Similarly, hydrogen is more suitable for long-distance trucks. It would take a battery weighing at least five tonnes to power a truck covering a distance of a few hundred kilometres, doubling the cost of the vehicle. 


"Races like Le Mans have reduced fuel consumption - by around 75% over the past 50 years - through reduced engine capacity, better aerodynamics and introducing diesel and hybrid engines."

What about aviation, which is not suitable for battery electric or hydrogen fuel cells at the moment?

I can see a role here for the synthetic fuels I mentioned earlier. But so far, the only viable alternatives to conventional jet fuels are blends that include gas-to-liquids fuels and biofuels. 

Today, there are more battery electric cars than hydrogen cars on the roads. Why are hydrogen cars slow to gain traction?

There are plenty of hydrogen-powered prototypes. I have driven a Mercedes fuel-cell car for several years. But there are only a few fuel-cell cars for sale. That's frustrating.

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars are fantastic. They are electric, they produce no emissions except water, refuelling takes just a few minutes. The car is light and the range and performance is good. 

But in many European countries at least, the focus has so far been on battery electric vehicles, and that doesn't always make sense from a technical point of view.

Many people think you can charge a battery electric car anywhere, because electricity is readily available.

But that is only partly true. It takes one day to charge the most powerful Tesla Model S at home using a standard household plug. That is not practical for most drivers.

These kinds of cars need fast charging, and that takes a different kind of high-voltage infrastructure which does not exist on a large scale in most countries in Europe yet.

car on road
Wernecke: "Festivals like Goodwood showcase innovation and the future, such as autonomous racing cars."

Are we nearing the end of the internal combustion engine?

Slowly but steadily, the world is moving away from internal combustion engines. In the meantime, there is still the potential to improve the efficiency of internal combustion engines, with the help of better fuels and lubricants.

Of course, the type of engine is important. There is still room for major advances in the efficiency of internal combustion engines. In Formula 1, for example, the engines are now up to 50% more efficient thanks to new combustion systems. I expect these will also move into ordinary passenger cars.

A diesel engine is between 10% and 20% more efficient than a petrol engine. It produces less CO₂ per kilometre as a result. But diesel produces more local air pollution.

The question is how to keep cleaning up diesel fuel so that it causes less air pollution, while still benefiting from its efficiency in terms of CO₂ emissions. As regulations on emissions controls around the world become more stringent, internal combustion engines, including diesel, will continue to emit less pollutants.

What can regular drivers do to improve fuel efficiency right now?

Lots of people ask me what car they should buy to reduce their emissions. First, I tell them to think carefully about their needs.

If they only commute a short distance to work, or make quick trips to take children to school, do they really need a large sports utility vehicle? 

In my family, for example, we have decided on two cars. One compact Smart car for commuting to my work in Hamburg. Another estate car to travel around with the family at the weekend. 

Replacing an old car with a new car is not always the best solution. Taking into account the energy needed to produce a new vehicle, any new car you buy needs to be at least 10% to 15% more fuel efficient than an old car to reduce emissions overall.

But most important is to think about how you drive. How fast are you accelerating? How hard do you brake? These are the biggest influencing factors, and something we can all change right now.