Urban Commuter Car a Winning Concept

Sean Coleman's dream came true in March when he got to climb behind the wheel of a car he designed. A graduate student in industrial design, Coleman won the 2010 Shell Eco-Marathon Americas competition to design a fuel-efficient car for urban commuting. "To see something go from your imagination to real life," he says, "is pretty amazing."

"With concept cars, unless you're working on the next production design, you just go where your imagination leads you."

The project began as an independent study class last fall where Coleman experimented with new computer-aided design software. Adjunct Assistant Professor Spencer Barnes encouraged him to use the software to design a
car for the Shell Oil-sponsored competition for high school and college students, which requires the vehicle to fit an existing frame and meet other exacting specifications. Coleman says he went through more than two dozen drafts before settling on a design he liked. "I tried to stick with modern styling trends," he says, pointing to creases on the doors and a sleek front end.

Dr. Bong-Il Jin helped advise Coleman on his design, pushing him to be as futuristic as possible. "His design was good for that contest," Jin says, "but a real concept car wouldn't have had so many constraints." The associate professor of industrial design knows a thing or two about concept cars, having worked as a top designer for Kia Motors and Daewoo Motors in his native South Korea during the 1980s and early 1990s. "With concept cars," he says, "unless you're working on the next production design, you just go where your imagination leads you."

Still, the design process is heavily research-based. Jin says he would examine the latest technologies, composite materials for the auto body, and trends in interior, fashion, and color. He also watched and read a fair bit of science-fiction for a futuristic vision while poring over market research to determine what current consumers wanted. "You have to try to match people's subconscious expectations," Jin says. "You take current models and then use styling and a different paradigm to improve on them."

Jin says his industry experience now helps him prepare students like Coleman for careers in automotive design. "We try to match their imagination with what can be mass produced," he says. "The designs should be more advanced than recent cars." Coleman says the Shell competition taught him the importance of research in design and has helped him adapt to rapidly changing situations. He plans to design another eco-friendly car for his master's thesis and — who knows? — it might wind up being what people are driving in a few years.


Dr. Bong-Il Jin reviews automotive design ideas of Sean Coleman, a graduate student in industrial design. Coleman went through about two dozen iterations of his design for an urban commuter car in a Shell Oil-sponsored competition. Winning the contest meant his design was transformed into an actual vehicle, rendered below.