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Shell Starship launches from San Diego to test fuel efficient trucking

The Shell Starship will take off from San Diego for its maiden voyage across the U.S. tomorrow. No, it's not a spacecraft but a semi-truck created in partnership with Shell, the gas and energy company.

It's being billed as a hyper-fuel efficient freight hauler, designed to demonstrate the technologies trucks could use to clean up their act and use less fuel. And if you think it looks like Mack, the carrier of the Lightning McQueen character from the "Cars" movies, you aren't far off.

Only this isn't Pixar.

It's a real truck that's trying to show what's possible to increase the fuel economy of a so-called Class 8 truck from the current industry average of 6.5 mpg. Shell won't say what target it's hoping to hit with the Starship, but with its steeply angled windshield, trailer "skirts" that hang almost all the way to the ground, solar panels and automatic tire pressure inflators, it's likely it will achieve at least 10 mpg.

"Transportation in general makes up 35 percent of global energy usage, and of that 35 percent, freight transport makes up over 40 percent," said Shell spokeswoman, Megan Pino. "So if you're looking to make an impact in reducing CO2 emissions and helping solve the world's energy challenge, transportation is a good place to start."

The Starship uses a diesel engine that, if its fuel economy is increased, could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But lowering greenhouse gas emissions with higher fuel economy is only one piece of the puzzle for California.

It helps achieve Governor Jerry Brown's goal of reducing emissions that contribute to global climate change, but locally, it doesn't help with SoCal's chronic air pollution.

"Unfortunately that really doesn't do much for our smog problem," said Matt Miyasato, deputy executive officer for science and technology advancement with the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

"That engine they're using is still a diesel engine. In terms of NOX and smog emissions, it's really not helping our cause."

Meaning smog.

Every year, Los Angeles and Long Beach consistently rank among the worst in terms of smog-forming pollutants and poor air quality due in large part to the ports. Miyasato said that on-road heavy duty trucks account for about one sixth of the area's total emissions.

He said California needs to replace a huge number of the 400,000 heavy-duty on-road diesel freight trucks that operate here in order to meet federal Clean Air Act standards

"That's the thing that keeps us all up at night," Miyasato said. "We've got to turn over about 200,000 on-road trucks and 150,000 off-road pieces of equipment in six years to get to a cleaner standard."

To that end, the AQMD is pursuing multiple strategies right now, including partnering with companies like Volvo on a plug-in hybrid freight truck, as well as other companies for high-efficiency natural gas trucks.

But because a lot of drivers don't like natural gas trucks for their lack of power compared with diesel, AQMD is also working with the California Air Resources Board on less polluting diesel trucks. And it's working with the U.S. Department of Energy on hydrogen fuel cell trucks and battery electrics, both of which have zero tailpipe emissions.

Still, it will take a lot of incentive money to replace as many trucks as the AQMD says are needed to meet Clean Air Act requirements in time.

And if it doesn't? 

"The federal government can come in and say you're not meeting your obligation ... so we're going to impose our own measures in order for you to meet those," Miyasato said. "There's talk of things like no drive days... so there are efforts and measures that nobody would really like to see because they're more draconian than what we would likely implement on our own. It really behooves us to meet that standard."