Scale model of Shell's Starship concept truck. Photo: Steven Martinez

Scale model of Shell's Starship concept truck. Photo: Steven Martinez

Shell Rotella’s next-generation concept truck, nicknamed the Starship, is set to debut early in 2018 and the company says it will focus on freight efficiency rather than raw miles per gallon.

The truck, which the company has been teasing since 2015, is a collaborative effort between Shell and the Airflow Truck Company, which builds custom Class 8 trucks and trailers designed to push aerodynamic, fuel-efficient design. For this project, the cab of the truck and the trailer are being custom made to reduce weight and rolling resistance while streamlining aerodynamics.

While not designed to be put into production, the concept vehicle is also not supposed to represent a far-flung future. Bob Mainwaring, Shell Lubricants technology manager for innovation, explained to reporters at a California briefing this week that it is Shell’s vision for 5-15 years in the future.

A lot of emphasis was placed on freight ton efficiency as the primary metric for the Starship vehicle, eschewing fuel economy as the be-all and end-all of fuel efficiency. Mainwaring described freight ton efficiency as maximizing the usefulness of fuel mileage. When tuning a vehicle for fuel economy, the best way to achieve it is to run lightweight and slow, he said. However, using gallons per ton-mile instead of miles per gallon incentivizes carrying as much weight as possible as efficiently as possible.

“Go Slow, Go Heavy” is the mantra for thinking about how to improve freight efficiency. An example Shell gave was that a car with one passenger might achieve 30 mpg and be considered fuel efficient. But that same car carrying three people and only hitting 28 mpg is actually being far more efficient overall. In other words, the more goods you carry, the more efficient your fuel usage actually is. 

To improve freight efficiency, the Starship project has emphasized aerodynamics, lightweighting, reducing rolling resistance, and use of low-viscosity oils. When the Starship is finally unveiled next year, Shell plans to take the vehicle coast to coast to test it, from California to Florida on a drive designed to maximize efficiency and generally avoiding congestion when possible. The company says it isn’t aiming for specific number goals and is treating the Starship as “thought leadership on wheels.”