LONG BEACH, Calif. — In the 1987 film “The Untouchables,” the late actor Sean Connery sarcastically accused a would-be assailant of bringing “a knife to a gunfight.”

The presence of the diesel-powered Shell Starship 2.0 at this week’s Advanced Clean Transportation Expo is a sort of metaphor for the famous scene, a pivotal moment in the Prohibition-era crime drama.

Diesel fuel is no more the point of Shell’s futuristic technology test bed for freight efficiency than the knife-wielding mobster who lured Connery’s character to his death in a hail of machine-gun fire.

Climate change activists might want to dismiss CO2-emitting diesel as a dead man, but they would be premature.

Diesel’s staying power

“The energy transition is a long road. We’re not going to get there overnight,” Jeff Priborsky, Shell global marketing manager for the on-highway fleet sector, told FreightWaves. “I believe that is the direction we’ll be moving, but diesel is here now. It will be here for a long time.”

At its heart, petroleum-based fuels and lubricants are Shell’s stock-in-trade.The Starship dominates Its display in the Long Beach Convention Center, but its display also highlights compressed natural gas, hydrogen and electric infrastructure. Shell purchased Greenlots, an electric vehicle charging and energy management software provider, in January 2019.

“The energy transition is a long road. We’re not going to get there overnight. I believe that is the direction we’ll be moving, but diesel is here now. It will be here for a long time.”

Jeff Priborsky, Shell global marketing manager for the on-highway fleet sector

The 79,500-pound second-generation truck is built on a $125,000 base model Navistar International Class 8 LT with a Meritor Inc. chassis and a lightweight 6-by-2-axle configuration. It is powered by a 2020 Cummins X15 engine paired with an Eaton Endurant 12-speed transmission. 

“This integrated pairing is basically what’s giving us that fuel economy saving and driving down greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ryan Manthiri, the Starship 2.0 project leader.

Destined as a one-off

Shell is demonstrating what off-the-shelf aerodynamic and fuel-saving technologies could do to make a truck go farther on a gallon of diesel. And, more importantly, what it can do for freight-ton efficiency — a statistic that combines the weight of cargo being moved with the amount of fuel consumed.

Starship’s gapless cab and trailer resemble early versions of the Tesla Semi, announced in 2017 and now expected to go into production in 2022. After multiple delays, some question when — or if — the battery-powered electric Semi will be more than a prototype.

The Starship — a joint project of Shell Lubricants Solutions and Shell Technology teams — will never be more than a one-off concept. 

“Just imagine what fleets could do if they could take one, two or three of the technologies that Shell Starship 2.0 incorporates [and] utilize them in their own fleet,” Priborsky said. “Not only can they improve their fuel economy, they’re also going to reduce their cost of operations, but [there is] also the benefit of reducing CO2 emissions.”

.Many of the ACT Expo attendees perusing what’s coming in truck powertrains will return home to the reality of a diesel-driven world. That helps explain why Shell bought one of three presenting sponsorships — maybe to serve as a reality check against electric truck hype.

“Starship is really especially relevant right now,” Priborsky said. “It’s demonstrating to these fleets what they can do now. Because, let’s face it, we can build all the [electric] trucks. It’s all going to be based upon the duty cycle, but we also have to have the infrastructure in place.”

Putting up big numbers

The Starship 2.0 replicated its May 2018  maiden voyage — a 2,315-mile cross-country trip from San Diego to Jacksonville, Florida — earlier this year. Because of the pandemic, it skipped stops for media events that were part of the Starship 1.0’s run in May 2018. It completed the trip in about three days, averaging 62 mph.

The Shell Starship 2.0 on one of its two runs to measure how aerodynamic technologies could improve fuel and freight efficiency. (Photo: Shell)

The Starship 2.0 achieved 10.8 miles per gallon compared to 8.94 mpg achieved by Starship 1.0. The North American fleet averages 6.4 mpg. New diesel trucks offer about 7.5 mpg depending on options ordered, according to Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE).

Starship 2.0 posted 245 ton-miles per gallon in freight efficiency compared to 178 achieved in 2018. The U.S. fleet average for freight-ton efficiency is 72 ton-miles per gallon. The nearly 3.5-fold improvement came with an 18% greater payload — 47,100 pounds of clean reef material compared to 39,900 pounds in 2018.

A second 400-mile trek, in North Carolina, reduced the cargo weight to 17.5 tons, more reflective of the typical fleet payload. The average fuel economy was 12 mpg. The freight-ton efficiency was 210 ton-miles per gallon. Shell acknowledged the lighter load made a difference. But the mpg almost doubled and the ton-miles tripled the U.S. average.  

“When I helped announce the result from the first Starship run, I said there was unfinished business and it would be great if Shell created a 2.0,” Roeth told FreightWaves. “I think they’ve done a fantastic job of delivering a very high mpg with this truck.”

The NACFE monitored and verified both trips.

“Those changes are absolutely enormous, and in no way should we trivialize them because ‘it’s only diesel’ and diesel is old technology,” said Robert Manwaring, a Shell Lubricants innovation manager in the United Kingdom. 

About the technologies

The Starship’s distinctive slope-nosed carbon-fiber cab is the only significant carryover element between the two Starships. The idea of a carbon-fiber cab for a heavy-duty truck is exotic and expensive. But it is possible.

“If I want to go out tomorrow and buy this piece of equipment or build it, there exists a blueprint,” Manthiri said. 

At a 0.25 aerodynamic drag coefficient, the Starpship is more than twice as sleek and half as affected by wind as a traditional box-shaped tractor, which has a coefficient of about 0.6.

An updated automatic gap sealer from TruckLabs [formerly XStream] deploys at about 55 mph, retaining the aerodynamic efficiency from wind being pushed down and around the front of the cab.

“The air will kind of stick to the body as it transitions down, and then it gets to the space between the back of the cab and the trailer, where you want to avoid creating those dead zones,” Manthiri said.

Custom side skirts also contribute and a mechanical boat tail at the rear contributes 1% to 5% fuel efficiency savings.

An average operator could relate to many of the devices, telematics and technologies in the truck. The MirrorEye camera system from Stoneridge Inc. might be unfamiliar, but as federal waivers allow video positioned on the A-pillar to replace bulky outside mirrors, that, too, will become more common.

The interior of the Shell Starship looks a lot like the Navistar International LT on which it is based. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

A Miasole 5,000-watt solar array on the roof of the trailer powers the main 12-volt battery bank on the truck and Starship’s main hydraulic landing gear. 

“We didn’t go out there to break the mold and use something that’s going to completely disrupt the industry,” Manthiri said. “We wanted to use things that we knew are working well, so there was a lot of consultation with OEMs, with [subject matter experts].”

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

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