Guest Post: Big Rigs, Big Benefits; How Strong Rules Will Clean Up the Road

This blog was originally published on Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) blog, The Equation, by Kenneth Kimmel, president of UCS. SACE’s clean fuels team works to support UCS’ Half the Oil vision to improve air quality and cut oil use in half over the next 20 years through innovative strategies including improved vehicle efficiency and increased use of electric transportation.

Tractor trailers go about six miles on a gallon of diesel, a number that has barely budged since the 1970’s. This shocked me the first time I heard it, and I imagine that many of you have the same reaction. After all, so many other products—passenger cars, light bulbs, refrigerators—are so much more efficient now, why not trucks? The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way.

The analysts here at UCS, in coordination with other technical experts, have determined that these trucks can do much better, and that a new draft rule issued by the Obama Administration will help get us there.

Our analysis shows new trucks purchased in 2025 can be, on average, 40 percent more efficient than a new truck purchased in 2010. Better fuel economy comes from a combination of more efficient engines, sleeker, more aerodynamic designs, low rolling resistance tires, better transmissions, and other improvements. Many of these technologies are in the marketplace today, but they are not offered on many models, slowing uptake.

Making our trucks more efficient has multiple benefits
It can dramatically cut our use of oil. According to our analysis, achieving that 40 percent improvement by 2025 will result in savings of 1.4 million barrels of oil daily by 2030 more than we import from Saudi Arabia today.

It can significantly cut the emissions of heat trapping gases. We estimate that the 40 percent efficiency improvement in trucks would reduce 270 million metric tons of carbon pollution emissions annually in 2030. That’s the equivalent of retiring about 70 coal plants.

And it is an economic winner. The average big rig driver would save $30,000 annually in fuel costs, with technology that pays for itself in just over a year. We estimate that households would save at least $135 per yeardue to this cut in the costs of transporting goods, and likely much more.

Tackling the fuel economy of heavy-duty trucks will cut oil use, carbon, and costs. Photo: Folkert Gorter

EPA and NHTSA move us forward
Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed a rule that will go a long way towards reaping these benefits and achieving what we here at UCS know is possible. The rule will cover everything from heavy-duty pick-up trucks and delivery vans to the behemoth tractor trailers that transport most of the goods we use in our daily lives, establishing increasing fuel economy standards for different types of fleets. At first glance it looks like it makes great strides, although it seems to delay full implementation until 2027, which from our point of view is too far away, even for an industry like this one that has long product cycles.

It is important to note that this rule relies upon technologies that are either currently available in the market place or have been credibly put to the test in programs such as the Department of Energy’s SuperTruck Program.

The new rule will help put these existing technologies into more vehicles, increasing total market penetration, and scaling up production to bring down the price. At the same time, it is likely that the rule will galvanize additional innovation, as industry invests capital in finding the most cost-effective way to meet the new standards.  Important industry players have come out in support of strong standards already, including Cummins, the largest engine manufacturer for the U.S. market, and Eaton, a leading manufacturer of transmissions for heavy-duty trucks. And because the U.S. has led in this field, we can reasonably expect that our standards will become the “new normal” and drive improvement at an international level.

But like any regulation that makes significant change, there will be naysayers. For example, we may hear a claim that the new rule will result in a rush to buy existing trucks before the new standards kick in, resulting in layoffs once the rule is in effect.

Don’t believe it. It doesn’t make sense—why would anyone rush to buy a truck that gets bad mileage when a better one will soon be available? In fact, EPA and NHTSA promulgated the first rule to regulate heavy-duty fuel economy in 2011 and it went into effect in 2014. In the first year of the standards, truck sales are the highest they have been since 2006 and are on pace to grow again this year.

So we at UCS welcome this new draft rule, and the robust public debate that will follow. We will carefully review the details, and look for ways to strengthen it if needed. And we are confident that when it is finalized, the rule will add to an admirable legacy for the Obama Administration of addressing climate change with cost-effective solutions.

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