Cleaning up Big Trucks to Deliver a Cleaner Future

06/23/2015 12:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

Tractor trailers and other medium and heavy trucks are the hard working giants of the American highway. They are also a disproportionately large part of our nation's carbon footprint. Buses, delivery vans and 18-wheelers contribute a massive 20 percent of all transportation-related greenhouse gases while comprising only 5 percent of vehicles.

These behemoths also use more than one hundred million barrels of oil every day. And they burn that diesel at an incredibly inefficient 5 to 6 mpg. While such freight vehicles will never match the fuel economy of a passenger vehicle, they can be made much cleaner in a short period of time.

Last Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation proposed rules to do just that: improve the mileage of heavy duty trucks by 24 percent while reducing their greenhouse gases emissions by a similar amount by 2027. The proposed standards are expected to lower CO2 emissions by approximately 1 billion metric tons, and reduce oil consumption by up to 1.8 billion barrels over the lifetime of the vehicles sold under the program. The total oil savings under the program would be greater than a year's worth of U.S. imports from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
These reductions are nearly equal to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with energy use by all U.S. residences in one year without hamstringing the industry. In fact, trucking companies will get huge savings in diesel costs of $170 billion. The consumer also will benefit. These savings will bring down cost of goods and the average household could save nearly $150 a year by 2030.

Despite all the benefits they offer, like for any regulation that makes significant change, there are naysayers. The National Automobile Dealers Association and American Truck Dealers said in a statement,"The costs could even drive small fleets and owner-operators out of business, costing jobs and only further impeding economic growth." The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said it was concerned that the rules would "push truckers to purchase technology that is not fully tested and may lead to costs such as increased maintenance and down time that will eclipse the potential savings estimated in the proposal." These objections are the industry boilerplate often rolled out when new standards are announced - and they have no basis in fact.

For example, some commercial trucks fleets looking for greater efficiency have already achieved the 2027 final goal of 9-10 miles per gallon without any government mandates. Drivers for Hirschbach Motor Lines can regularly get more than 10 mpg. Mesilla Valley Transportation awarded a Nissan Versa to a driver who averaged 9.74 over a three-month period.

Trucking companies are already independently pursuing the same kind of improved fuel efficiency as EPA rules require because their single biggest fixed expense for is the hundreds of millions of dollars they spend on fuel every day. The math is simple - and has nothing to do with combating climate change. As a result of the first heavy duty truck rules that began in 2014 the owner of a new big rig will save over $70,000 in fuel by 2018 while the US economy saves $50 billion. Today's new proposal will provide even more savings than the first program.

Today's proposal is not a new intrusion into the trucking industry. Instead it will support and expand an already existing market, driving American manufacturers to be world leaders. Tom Linebarger, CEO of Cummins, in his interview for my book Driving the Future made clear how valuable such EPA regulations can be in pushing the industry forward by "helping us innovate and be ahead of the competition, and grow overseas markets."

Cummins and other major equipment manufacturers like Eaton have already heavily invested in cleaner, more efficient technology. Freightliner's "Super Truck," for example, is a prototype vehicle with an advanced hybrid-electric energy recovery that achieves 12.2 mpg, well above the targeted 2027 requirement. The certainty of fixed deadlines and specific mileage targets will further expand such efforts. Mandated improvements create expanding markets with the sort of stability that equipment manufacturers need to invest in breakthrough technologies.

This approach has a proven track record of encouraging industries to improve fuel efficiency and cut carbon pollution by driving market competition. For example, before the Obama administration's fuel economy and greenhouse gas rules were finalized in 2010, the average mpg of passenger vehicles hadn't budged since the mid-1980s. Today the car industry is racing to develop cleaner, smarter technologies from advanced lightweight materials, more efficient engines and transmissions and an expanding range of hybrids and electrics. This program, very similar to the one proposed for heavy duty trucks, is an unequivocal success. In 2014 34 percent of the cars sold already met the 2016 standard, and 4 percent could already meet the 2025 standard.
Finally, better fuel efficiency has overwhelming public support. According to a recent study by the Consumer Federation of America, 75 percent of US consumers favor higher fuel efficiency of large trucks.

The complaints of some trucking industry voices shouldn't stop the United States from leading the way in cutting carbon pollution and improving the fuel efficiency of medium and heavy trucks. These rules mandate a fairly modest improvement, but have a huge potential impact. In fact, they form one of the three legs of President Obama's plans to reach the commitments he made for greenhouse gas reductions by 2030. The other two are the hugely successful greenhouse gas reduction in passenger vehicles and plans to reduce the carbon emissions from coal plants and other parts of the energy sector.

This week, Pope Francis called for the world to take action to slow climate change and to live up to our moral obligation to protect the planet. Today's proposal is the latest step this Administration has taken toward meeting that obligation. The proposal not only improves the performance of trucks, it will preserve the only planet where they are driven. It's time to drive trucks into the future.