Trying to sort out the future while living in the present is making for challenging times for users of commercial trucks and the companies that build them. For an industry that is substantially reliant on diesel technology, then what does the future hold?
The need to meet clean air requirements - particularly localized emissions concerns for disadvantaged communities and cutting greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change - are justifications behind a deluge of new emissions and climate change regulations and policies impacting every aspect of the future for heavy-duty trucks.
It began in 2020, when the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted a “Low NOx Omnibus Regulation” that cuts nitrogen oxide emissions from new trucks sold there by 75%, starting in 2024. Then the Advanced Clean Truck Regulation followed in 2021, requiring manufacturers to sell increasing percentages of zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) starting in 2024. And later this year a rule requiring California fleets to buy those ZEVs is expected to be finalized.
In December 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a new final federal rule that will cut future NOx emission from new trucks by 50% from current levels starting in 2027. On March 23, EPA granted critical waivers that allow several aspects of California’s Advanced Clean Trucks program to go forward, and on April 12 the Biden Administration proposed a multi-pollutant new standard and the third phase of rules requiring new trucks to achieve lower greenhouse gas emissions. And let’s not forget the six states (OR, WA, NJ, NY, MA, MD) that since 2020 have adopted California’s heavy-duty truck rules as their own.
It’s too early to say for sure where this patchwork quilt of new requirements leaves the industry. Some on the receiving end of the rules, including fleet managers, are speaking out.
Andrew Boyle, the manager of Boyle Transportation, a truck fleet with one of the strongest environmental records in the industry today and a first Vice Chairman of the American Trucking Association appeared before the United State Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on April 21. Among other things, his testimony noted that “projecting an automotive construct (for EVs in passenger vehicles) on the trucking industry dynamic is a massive mistake.” He injected a heavy dose of reality into the debate happening on Capitol Hill, and nationwide, over electric-vehicle mandates.
Boyle outlined the challenges and readiness for electrification of heavy-duty trucking. He noted that anywhere in the US, one of his diesel-powered trucks can be fueled in 15 minutes and then has a range of 1,200 miles. An electric truck with a smaller payload has a range of 150-330 miles and takes a dozen hours to recharge, so it would take 3-4 times as many trucks to do the same work, and that was if adequate power charging was available.
We are clearly at the beginning of a chaotic period of competing existing technologies - advanced diesel and natural gas - and new technologies, battery electric vehicles and those fueled by hydrogen, in varying states of readiness and uncertainty. What is the future for internal combustion engines like diesel and natural gas in the next 10 or 20 years? The overwhelming majority of commercial trucks are powered by diesel engines today; a trend that is unlikely to change for a decade or more, thanks to continued improvement in emissions, ready fuel access, predictable performance, and other known operating characteristics.
Meeting clean air demands does not require switching to a zero-emissions vehicle. In fact, the most immediate benefits to disadvantaged communities are most likely to come from replacing the oldest technology vehicles with newer ones. Lengthy timeframes to get zero-emission vehicles to scale with the necessary charging or fueling infrastructure are major issues yet to be worked through.
Beyond the advanced internal combustion engines, renewable biodiesel fuels and renewable natural gas have been gaining in popularity with fleets as readily available and affordable means to immediately reduce carbon and other emissions. The fuels are renewable, plentiful, growing in production, and widely accepted by truckers. The renewable low-carbon fuels have been central to helping California and a few other states achieve dramatic reductions in greenhouse gases and other emissions by blending more low carbon fuels into the mainstream fuel supply, or for fleets that switch to 100% biobased diesel fuel outright.
For all the proven success of using renewable biodiesel fuels, EPA’s regulatory posture on the utility and future for these fuels is a failure. Earlier this year their initial foray setting renewable fuel policy fell far short of expectations, underestimating the potential for growth in volumes of renewable biodiesel fuels used now and more production capacity coming online. Unbelievably EPA’s proposed renewable fuels policies did deliver a boost to cellulosic biofuels that is tied also to use of electric vehicles enabling them to generate e-credits. EPA’s proposals raised serious questions from some leading voices about the Biden Administration’s fairness and preferences for electrification over all other strategies. If EPA’s approach is finalized, it diminishes the future for biobased diesel fuels while essentially further expanding electrification.
For their part, truck and engine manufacturers are playing their version of Jenga – living in a world stacked with competing forces – serving the customer of today while planning for the one of tomorrow, moving at just the right speed on new technology and not losing ground on what is selling today. It’s a teetering tower where success is interdependent, yet not all factors are known, and many are out of their control.
How will the economy fare? Are freight demands increasing or decreasing? Will truckers hang on to older equipment? (Prediction: yes, for a while). Will there be pre-buy diesel trucks at the last minute before new ZEV purchase mandates take effect? (Prediction: yes, if history is any indication). Will some truckers be pioneers and go all in on ZEV to take advantage of all the government incentives and funding? (Prediction: some can and are, yes). Will hydrogen make a stand that can compete with diesel for long haul? (Prediction: possibly at some point). Will new fuel and original equipment manufacturers (Tesla, Nikola) be able to significantly displace the traditional OEMs (Cummins, Daimler, Isuzu, Navistar, Paccar, Volvo) from the market? (Prediction: not likely). Will fleets want to take a risk with a familiar and proven partner and wonder about parts, service, and standing behind the product when the novelty wears off?
The one thing that the new truck rules all have in common is they will be a heavy burden to figure out and comply with in a relatively short amount of time. And they all only impact future new vehicles and fleet purchases starting in 2024 in California, and 2027 at the federal level. None of the current requirements address the existing fleets of millions of trucks, and the millions more miles and dozens more years that they will be in operation. If we have a climate crisis as EPA has said and we can’t wait for cleaner air for communities, how does diminishing the opportunity for greater use of renewable biobased diesel fuel help deliver carbon reductions faster?
In this time of “everything, everywhere, all at once” there are ways to deliver significant results and boost traditional manufacturing right now. The Modern, Clean, and Safe Trucks Act (Senate Bill S. 694) would eliminate the 12% federal excise tax on the purchase of new trucks, a major barrier to new truck acquisition. Coupled with expanding the use of renewable biofuels everywhere possible would go a long way toward delivering more progress on clean air faster and securing some greenhouse gas reduction now to make the future less challenging. And it would give time for ZEV technology to come further along.
One thing is for sure. We’ll need our trucks to deliver everything our economy demands tomorrow, just like today. Maybe what is powering the truck won’t matter much… unless it can’t deliver.