Shell-AirFlow Venture To Launch Starship Hyper Fuel-Efficient Truck

Fuel efficiency and freight transport typically exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, but a new Class 8 truck hopes to change that. It’s called the Starship.

It’s a fitting name for a tractor-trailer that looks unusually futuristic and seeks to break the bounds of fossil fuel efficiency, said Megan Pino, global brand manager for Shell Rotella — the heavy-duty lubricant division of Shell.

“We’re fully aware that we have a global energy challenge in front of us with increases in population, increases in urbanization and with that the rise of carbon dioxide emissions,” Pino said. “To meet those challenges is going to be difficult, so we believe a collaborative effort is necessary.”

Long-haul trucks in the heaviest Class 8 weight segment get about 6.5 mpg. Improving efficiency flows directly to the profits of a motor carrier. Fuel is the second highest cost after labor for trucking companies, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.

There are many ways to increase fuel economy, according to Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. Readily available methods include better driver training, deploying available tractor aerodynamics, optimizing vehicle speed, adopting more efficient transmissions and using low rolling resistance tires

“There’s no disputing it, 10 mpg is a realistic achievement for commercial vehicles carrying real loads in the real world,” Roeth said.

shell starship truck front

The Tractor is made of carbon fiber and the trailer features long skirts for increased aerodynamics. (Photo: Shell)

The Starship — a Shell partnership with the truck maker AirFlow — incorporates currently available technologies with fledgling concepts to create what they call “a hyper fuel-efficient truck.”

Those technologies fall into three general categories: aerodynamics, efficiency and Shell Lubricant technologies, said Dan Arcy, global OEM technical manager for Shell Global Solutions.

The windswept profile of the lightweight carbon fiber cab “cuts through the wind with the least amount of resistance possible,” Arcy said. The front of the cab also uses active shutter grilles that close when it isn’t necessary to cool the engine, directing air around the truck instead of through it.

The gaps between the tractor and trailer are also filled with cab extenders that deploy as the truck goes down the road, reducing drag by creating a smooth surface for the air to flow over. The Starship uses side skirts and a tail at the back of the trailer to prevent a fuel-wasting vacuum from forming in the truck’s wake.

To lower the base weight of the vehicle so the Starship can haul more freight, the trailer uses a tag axle that’s just as capable of carrying a full load; it’s just lighter weight, Arcy said.

shell starship truck side

The Starship’s gap sealer will deploy when the truck is at speed to reduce drag and help increase fuel economy. (Photo: Shell)

Up top, the trailer is outfitted with solar panels capable of generating 5,000 watts of energy. It downloads to the Starship’s 48-volt battery system, powering air conditioning for the cab and trailer. While down below, automatic inflators that keep the tires at the right pressure aren’t only on the trailer tires but the drive axle on the tractor.

Under the hood are MPG-boosting Shell Lubricants, including a high-tech, low-viscosity 5W30 full synthetic engine oil that is so new it isn’t yet available in the market, as well as low-viscosity, high-durability axle oil and transmission fluid.

The Starship isn’t just a concept. It’s a demonstration vehicle that has already been built and will be making its maiden voyage from coast to coast, leaving from San Diego on May 18 and, if all goes as planned, arriving in Jacksonville, Fla, six days later. The truck will be fully loaded and measured along its route for freight ton efficiency. The results will be verified by the North American Council for Freight Efficiency and shared with the public June 5. The Starship is on display this week at ACT Expo, a green transportation conference in Long Beach, Calif.

Transport accounts for more than a quarter of the world’s total energy use and one-fifth of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, according to Shell. And trucks are a significant contributor.

But Shell isn’t predicting how much fuel savings will be logged by the Starship.

“We don’t feel that any one specific number means success or failure,” Pino said. “We’re looking to improve upon the average truck we get today, and we’re confident we will, but this is about furthering the conversation. We’re looking for people to get behind these efficiency technologies.”

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