Duke Electric Vehicles Team Hits Hollywood

How a Duke Engineering student group became the stars of a nationally aired TV ad

By Ken Kingery

During the 2015 Shell Eco-marathon, the Duke Electric Vehicles (DEV) team had quite a showing. Not only did they take 2nd place in their category, their carefully catalogued research into the optimal thickness of their car’s carbon-fiber body won them the Technical Innovation Award. The accomplishment helped Duke be considered as a front-runner for Shell’s Make the Future corporate campaign.

In October 2015, the DEV team was contacted by Shell to gauge the team’s interest in participating in a commercial, featuring Shell Eco-marathon. After a Skype interview landed the gig, the team was flown to Los Angeles for a whirlwind Hollywood experience during Fall Break.

“We came home and were like, ‘Oh my gosh, all of that happened so quickly!’” said Alexandra Monroe, the DEV team’s communications specialist. “We needed to look through the photos to see what we’d actually done.”

After taking apart, loading up and shipping out their competition car, five members of the DEV team flew to the West Coast the night of Sunday, October 11. Their alarm clocks went off at 5:00 the next morning, and the time flew by from there.

The day involved an hour’s drive to the set, a hair, makeup and wardrobe session, several one-to-two-hour video shoots—one with Heroes Reborn star Greg Grunberg—a couple of personal on-camera interviews, a short break for lunch, another for cake in celebration of a birthday, and then it was back to the hotel. And as an added bonus, Jay Leno was also on set, and footage featuring the team appeared on an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage in early December.

“We didn’t get back until at least 8:00 that night, and we were spent,” said Charlie Kritzmacher, a senior in mechanical engineering and materials science, president of DEV and the reason for the day’s birthday cake. “We didn’t even have the energy to celebrate. We just had dinner and went to bed.”

Their plane left for Durham early the next morning. And exactly one month later, the commercial aired during an episode of NBC’s Heroes Reborn and a more in-depth video was posted online.

The shoot took an entire day. The in-depth video was 124 seconds long. The commercial, just 30.

“The attention to detail is just absolutely insane,” said Kritzmacher. “Someone would say this window is too dirty and magically two people would appear with every kind of window-washing piece of equipment that you could possibly need.”

The DEV team hopes to take some of that attention to detail and apply it to their new entry for the 2016 Shell Eco-marathon, which takes place in in Detroit, Michigan on April 22-24, 2016.

In the past, the DEV team has always competed in the prototype battery-powered vehicle category, trying to get the best ratio of miles per kilowatts of energy used. This year, the team will be entering the urban concept side of the competition.

Rather than an awkward, bullet-shaped prototype car, the team will be building something much more like a commercial vehicle, with headlights, taillights, a trunk, steering wheel, and other standard features.

“The prototype design is a really cool project, whereas the urban concept design is more like a really cool car that you might see on the road someday,” explained Kritzmacher. “The goal is to bridge between the theory of the prototype and the practicality of real life, and to help inspire change.”

The urban concept competition will be a lot more work for the team. They’re already working on their first prototype, but they could still use help.

The DEV team is always open to new members joining their ranks. To help potential members get involved, Kritzmacher has created a series of lessons that live online on a Sakai page so that those interested can either catch up or get ahead in learning about the processes involved.

You don’t even need to be an engineer to get involved.

“People are often anxious because they feel they can’t join a team that builds cars because they don’t know anything about it,” said Monroe, who is herself a graduate student in liberal studies. “But Charlie has created a ton of educational resources that can help just about anybody learn at their own pace and feel confident that they can contribute.”

“Because it’s a very practical, real-world project as opposed to early engineering classes that are more theoretical, the engineering kids don’t really know that much more than the non-engineering kids, at least to start,” said Kritzmacher. “We always encourage people who aren’t in Pratt to try it because they can catch up very quickly. It’s a great space to get involved with something that might be outside your comfort zone.”