The Starship is almost ready to launch

 The Shell/Airflow Starship ( Photo: FreightWaves )

The Shell/Airflow Starship (Photo: FreightWaves)

FreightWaves reported on the launch of the Shell/Airflow Starship concept truck in March at TMC in Atlanta. The project has moved forward in a significant way: now Shell and Airflow have announced the exact route the Starship will take across the continental United States, as well as the specific stops the truck will make along the way. The Starship will depart San Diego on May 18 and stop in Gilda Bend, Arizona, before driving to Comfort, Texas by May 20, Houston, on May 22, Biloxi on May 23, and Jacksonville on May 24.

This week, at the ACT Expo in Long Beach, the Starship was something of an outlier on the exhibition floor. The crowd’s and audience’s momentum seemed to be behind low emission vehicles using liquefied natural gas, compressed natural gas, hydrogen fuel cells, or battery electric technology. But two exhibits doubled down on diesel fuel efficiency.

The Run on Less campaign had an impressive display right next to the Starship truck, and the literature at that booth broke down the results of the fuel efficiency study in concrete terms. Drivers for Albert Transport, Hirschbach, Pepsico’s Frito-Lay Division, Mesilla Valley Transportation, Ploger Transportation, Nussbaum, and US Xpress drove late model trucks with commercially viable fuel economy equipment across the country for over a month. Collectively, the drivers achieved an average fuel efficiency exceeding 10 mpg.

But the Starship project doubled-down on future efficiency gains in fossil fuels. Shell personnel were out in full force, passing out branded ball caps and printed literature. Shell staff members told FreightWaves that they expected the Starship to achieve up to three times the industry standard (roughly 5.5 mpgs). 

“Moving people and goods efficiently is vital to economic prosperity,” Shell wrote in its Starship literature. “Transport accounts fo more than one quarter of the world’s total energy use and one fifth of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Increasing efficiency and fuel economy in the transport sector could make considerable progress to help reduce emissions.”

The paradox of the Starship seems to lie in its very advantages—its bespoke, hyper-aerodynamic design with extremely low ground clearance and 100% carbon fiber body. On the ACT Expo showroom floor, the Starship looked almost like a low-rider, just inches above the ground. One wonders how the suspension will cope with inevitable bumps in the road and, too, how scaleable in mass production a purely carbon-fiber body might be.

The Starship truck combines the best of what FreightWaves saw at the ACT Expo: a hybrid electric axle system that takes advantage of regenerative braking, and a 5,000 watt solar array on the trailer roof that powers the cab air conditioning and inverter for the 120 volt hotel loads.

“The greatest challenge for this project is the number and physical scale of the components that need to be designed, manufactured, and handled—often as one-offs—starting literally from a blank sheet of paper,” said Robert Sliwa, the owner of Airflow Truck Company and principal developer of the Starship. Sliwa began in racing, went to regional trucking and OTR before devoting his attention to the aerodynamics of commercial vehicles.

“Collaboration is central to effective innovation: bringing people from different disciplines with different experience together to tackle a common problem,” remarked Bob Mainwairing, technology and innovation manager at Shell Lubricants. Mainwairing joined Shell in 1988 and leads Shell’s global automotive engine and lubricant research term for the Starship project. 

Shell and Airflow envision the Starship cross-country trip as a demonstration of what is possible with the most advanced diesel trucks on the planet. The Starship project will quantify, in addition to fuel economy, ’freight ton efficiency’, which is the primary indicator measured by the project. “It is usually expressed as gallons of fuel used per ton-mile of freight transported, but, equally, can be viewed as the force opposing vehicle motion per ton of goods carried. Small values of FTE are desirable and efforts to minimize the forces opposing vehicle motion and to increase the mass of goods carried will drive improvement. The mantra for this is: load up—go slow—go heavy,” wrote Shell.

The truck will be fully loaded with a gross vehicle weight of 80,000 lbs, maximizing freight ton efficiency. Weighing out the load will decrease fuel economy, but will ultimately increase freight ton efficiency and reduce carbon emissions for the amount of energy consumed. These metrics will be tracked by the Starship’s onboard telematics system and verified by an independent third party. 

FreightWaves will be in Jacksonville in late May to report on the results of the Starship’s cross-country run. Stay tuned!

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