Shell Starship 3.0 sneak preview

Sept. 12, 2023
Shell and Cummins plan to prove that renewable natural gas is already a viable and sustainable platform for long-haul freight.

PFAFFTOWN, North Carolina—Here, in a large garage fronted by a specialty donut and candle shop just outside of Winston-Salem, a test platform for sustainable long-haul freight transportation sits waiting to be assembled.

The project, Shell Starship 3.0, wasn’t scheduled to be in so many pieces when Shell invited a select few trucking editors for a preview, ahead of a cross-country evaluation run later this month. But even multibillion-dollar global corporations like Shell and Cummins aren’t immune to supply-chain challenges—especially on a one-off project like this.

As announced in May at ACT Expo, Starship 3.0 will include the new Cummins X15N Natural Gas engine to measure ton-miles of freight shipped per kilogram of CO2 emitted.

See also: Shell Starship 2.0 demonstrates improved efficiency

The demonstration run will highlight how fleets can reduce their energy usage and emissions profile by utilizing today’s available natural gas technologies and fueling infrastructure, explained Ryan Manthiri, project leader, Shell Global Solutions and the team lead for the Starship program, just as versions 1.0 and 2.0 showed what was possible with diesel engines.

“Look at what we did with Starship 2.0: We took the best possible diesel ICE and based our powertrain around the diesel platform—optimized to give us the best setup—because, at that point, that's where the sector sat in the decarbonization transition,” Manthiri said. “Right now, natural gas is commercially available, technologically, and the infrastructure is there. So it's a good time to showcase what's coming.”

Heather Duffey, global integrated communications manager for Shell Commercial Road Transport Lubricants, also noted the progression since 2015 when Shell Lubricants announced the Starship project at the Mid-America Trucking Show (MATS), teaming with original designer Bob Sliwa and his AirFlow Truck Co. on version 1.0.

“We learned what we could from 1.0 and we applied that to 2.0,” Duffey said. “We were able to achieve some really amazing results that are pretty extraordinary for diesel—so we're very proud of that.

“We've worked really closely with Cummins. The engineers have been seamlessly integrated to make sure that everything's getting done properly and is expedited as much as possible. But it's not a plug-and-play truck; it's a demonstration truck to show all of the technologies that are possible. So, from that perspective, there’s been a learning curve. And what we've learned will lead to a lot of value for fleets as they look to transition from diesel to other fuels.”

The engine in Starship 3.0 is an “alpha build” of the Cummins X15N, which currently has just a handful of units on the road in North America—although some 10,000 have been deployed globally, noted Puneet Jhawar, GM, Cummins global spark ignited and fuel delivery systems business.

“We’ve always had this problem that you can't derive an equivalent power from the same architecture. But this is the first time with a 15-liter that it'll give you the equivalent power that has come from a diesel product,” Jhawar said. “The torque curve pretty much mimics what a diesel has looked like, so the driver experience should be very, very close to where a diesel is.”

See also: As trucking transitions to alternative fuels, still focus on efficiency

As project representatives explained, the goal hasn’t been to apply bleeding-edge concepts to hit next-level performance goals; instead, the Starship vehicle is about applying new and available technologies to prove what works, reliably, today—and hitting impressive but realistic goals is the reward.

Specialty vehicle manufacturer Spevco, with roots here in NASCAR country, stepped up to handle the Starship program, beginning with version 2.0. The custom builder’s website description touts “when other manufacturers have refused to tackle a program, we make it happen.”

Clients range from the U.S. Army to the Dallas Cowboys to Oscar Mayer—yes, Spevco builds the Frankmobile, or so the iconic Wienermobile hot dog truck was recently renamed.

Basically, the Spevco team has had to custom design and fabricate much of the upfit, from brackets to hose and cable routing to figuring out the best place to put the entry steps and crafting those as well, Craig Tharpe, Spevco’s chief design engineer, explained.

“The fuel tanks are quite a bit different—they’re nearly a more major project than the engine, as far as the work standpoint goes,” Tharpe said. “We've spent a lot of time in the past year figuring how many DGEs we can get for this trial and still get everything bolted back on. We have to move a lot of stuff on the chassis to accommodate the tanks, because they’re about four times bigger than what was on it.”

The upcoming demonstration routes will take the truck from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Washington, and back, with one leg using RNG largely sourced  from dairy farms and the other leg sourced from landfills. Then the east-west route will take Starship 3.0 from LA to Atlanta.

Shell also has partnered with Trillium, an alternative-fuel provider that is an arm of big Shell customer Love’s Tavel Stops to take advantage of the existing natural gas fueling network.

The North American Council for Freight Efficiency will crunch the numbers for the independent, third-party test results. The data will be shared Oct. 8.

“Typically, the rule of thumb between diesel and fossil natural gas is a 16% to 18% reduction in the carbon footprint,” Shell’s Manthiri said. “With renewable natural gas, depending on the sources, I think it'll be way more than that.”

About the Author

Kevin Jones | Editor

Kevin has served as editor-in-chief of Trailer/Body Builders magazine since 2017—just the third editor in the magazine’s 60 years. He is also editorial director for Endeavor Business Media’s Commercial Vehicle group, which includes FleetOwner, Bulk Transporter, Refrigerated Transporter, American Trucker, and Fleet Maintenance magazines and websites.

Working from Little Rock, Kevin has covered trucking and manufacturing for 15 years. His writing and commentary about the trucking industry and, previously, business and government, has been recognized with numerous state, regional, and national journalism awards.

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