With trucking being such an important part of the transportation pie, and fuel economy regulations in the offing in many parts of the world, the pressure is on to develop more fuel-efficient highway haulers. To this end, Shell Lubricants has teamed up with Connecticut-based AirFlow Truck Company on "the Starship," a concept big rig fitted with various fuel-saving technologies that is being sent from sea to shining sea on a road trip to test its performance.

AirFlow Truck Company has a long history of Class 8 tractor trailer concepts designed to improve fuel economy, starting with the Cabover prototype in the early 80s. This was followed by the BulletTruck that started "real-world" freight hauling runs in 2012 and achieved an average of 13.4 mpg (17.5 L/100km) hauling 65,000 lb (29,494 kg) gross vehicle weight from coast to coast. Now, with Shell providing technical expertise relating to engine and drivetrain components (as well as lubricant recommendations), the company has taken things a step further with its third-generation prototype, dubbed the Starship.

There's no doubting the tractor and trailer look a lot more aerodynamic than any truck you're likely to pass on the highway, with the curved lines of the bespoke cab made from carbon fiber designed to slice through the air and reduce weight. The carbon fiber construction extends to the hood, bumper, and front and rear side skirts. At the front, there are active grille shutters that close and direct air around the vehicle when air flow isn't required through the radiator to keep the engine cool – this also decreases warm up time of the engine in cold weather. Meanwhile, at the rear, a boat tail reduces drag.

The rig is powered by a 2017 Cummins X15 six-cylinder engine generating 400 hp (298 kW) and 1,850 lb-ft (2,508 Nm) of torque, with a hybrid electric axle system providing an extra boost when climbing grades. The axle also features a downspeed configuration to maintain good pulling power while providing better efficiency. To keep the vehicle's tires at the optimum pressure, the trailer's rubber is fitted with a custom automatic tire inflation system (ATIS).

Making use of the free real estate on top of the truck, the trailer has been kitted out with a 5,000-watt solar array that charges up a 48-volt battery bank to power electronic components, including LED lights, wipers, blower motors, gauges, air conditioning and microwaves.

The Starship made its public debut at the Shell Make the Future event at Sonoma Raceway last week, ahead of a US coast-to-coast drive that will start next month. This will see the truck start in California and make its way to Florida carrying the maximum viable amount of freight within the allowed gross vehicle weight of 80,000 lb (36,287kg).

On the journey, the Starship Project team will measure the truck's fuel economy and freight tonne efficiency. This is the amount of energy required to move an amount of freight between two points, with Shell and Airflow believing it to be the most important measure of freight transportation efficiency, as maximizing a load while reducing fuel consumption will result in lower running costs and a reduction in weight specific carbon emissions.

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