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On display at Sonoma Raceway, truck named Starship tailored to cut fuel consumption

From the side, it looks like a Japanese bullet train, with a long sloping nose and only one black wheel showing along its sleek red, yellow and white body.

Head on, it “looks like a sports car and a semi truck all rolled into one,” said Pam Rosen, general manager of Shell Eco-marathon Americas.

But beneath its polished surface and what Shell calls its “hyper-aerodynamic design,” the long-hauler named Starship is a diesel-powered 18-wheeler built to move massive loads across the United States.

This weekend the Starship, a collaboration between Shell Oil Co. and Robert Sliwa, a Connecticut truck company owner, is on display at Sonoma Raceway during the 12th running of the Shell-sponsored Eco-marathon.

Like the pint-sized, hand-built cars brought by 99 teams of high school and college students intent on squeezing as many miles as possible out of a gallon of gasoline on the raceway asphalt, the behemoth Starship is intent on setting new records for fuel efficiency.

On May 18, Starship - with Sliwa at the wheel in a spacious cab made of ultra-light carbon fiber - will embark from San Diego on a ?2,150-mile, seven-day promotional trip to Jacksonville, Florida, hauling about 40,000 pounds of recycled concrete destined to create an artificial reef.

The goal, Rosen said, is to “redefine trucking performance,” reducing the amount of fuel burned and greenhouse gases emitted by the lumbering big rigs that dominate the nation’s highways and form a backbone of its commerce. A typical big rig gets 6 miles per gallon with a gross weight of ?65,000 pounds, including cargo, said Bob Mainwaring, a Shell innovation manager and mechanical engineer who contends that Starship can do much better.

Just how much better he won’t predict, but said that “if we achieve ?10 mpg that would be fantastic.”

All but two of Starship’s 18 wheels are covered by metal skirts and the gap between cab and trailer is also sheathed, creating a nearly unbroken silhouette. An aerodynamic “boat tail” on the back end also reduces drag as the truck cuts through the air.

Shutters on the truck’s huge grill open only when the engine compartment needs cooling, and otherwise close to shunt air around the vehicle.

An automatic tire inflation system ensures consistent pressure to cut fuel consumption and an electric motorized axle system boosts power while climbing grades. A 5,000-watt solar array atop the trailer charges batteries that power the truck’s electrical components, such as lights, wipers, gauges and air conditioning.

Starship runs on 5W-30 weight oil with lower viscosity than big rigs typically use, reducing engine wear and promoting fuel economy, and rolls on low-friction Bridgestone tires..

Sliwa, a former drag racer, drives Starship in higher gears than usual, a technique called “down-speeding” that lowers engine speed and improves fuel economy. The truck is still a technological work in progress, Mainwaring said.

“The question we’re asking is how good can we be,” he said.

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