New Heavy Truck Fuel Efficiency Can Help Deliver a Clean Energy Future

Thumbnail image for truck iStock_18400545-Truck on the highway.pngThe Obama administration today proposed new fuel efficiency standards to be phased in for heavy trucks, the energy hogs ranging from tractor-trailers to heavy-duty pickups on our nation's highways, but the implementation timeline can and should be accelerated to boost our economy and address dangerous climate change.

The proposal is the result of years of work by the U.S. EPA and Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). These "second phase" standards start after model year 2018 and reach their most stringent level in 2027. They follow the first-ever standards finalized in 2011 for model years 2014 to 2018.

But when it comes to cutting carbon pollution and reducing our dependence on oil, every year counts and we shouldn't have to wait until 2027. The technology is known and can be deployed earlier. The Obama administration should accelerate the standards by at least two years.

Today's Heavy Trucks are Big Polluters

Heavy trucks burn about 20 percent of fuel used in the transportation sector while making only about 4 percent of the vehicles on the road. Heavy trucks also emit 23 percent of transportation's carbon pollution and, without new standards, truck pollution will increase along with projected growth in demands for freight services.

Trucks must get much cleaner for the transportation sector to achieve climate protective levels of 80 percent below 1990 levels. Therefore it's appropriate that President Obama made new truck standards an integral part of his Climate Action Plan.

Fuel Efficiency Innovation Drives Competitiveness and Builds Jobs

Fuel efficiency and carbon pollution standards promote technological innovation that can make U.S. truck manufacturers market leaders. The standards create the certainty manufacturers need to make large investments in developing new technologies and retooling factories to produce them in high volumes.

Today, we're seeing this work in the passenger car market where the ramp up to the 54.5 mpg standards is spurring new fuel-saving innovations, like high-speed transmissions and lightweight materials. Consumers benefit from the rapid climb in fuel economy during the last five years. Simultaneously, U.S. jobs in the auto industry have grown by 519,000 since June 2009.

Similarly, standards for heavy trucks can promote innovation that makes all manufacturers more competitive. Sales of fuel-efficient vehicles will be less vulnerable to sales fluctuations during diesel and gasoline price spikes than their fuel-guzzling predecessors. Also, standards-driven technology advancements will put U.S. manufacturers in a leadership position on the international market as the European Union, China, Japan and other countries implement their own truck efficiency requirements.

Turning the Corner on Oil

After decades of rising oil demand, we've started to "bend the curve" downward. The truck standards are the latest reminder that we have clean energy solutions to continue to move us way from a fossil fuel future. As noted in recent testimony by my colleague Franz Matzner, "By continuing to advance efficiency and implement new transportation policies designed to reduce driving and accelerate electric vehicle sales, the U.S. could save nearly 4 billion barrels of oil annually by 2035. Notably, that's almost the same amount of oil, in a single year, as the Interior Department estimates can ever be recovered from drilling all our offshore waters from Florida to Maine."

Big Oil continues to call for expanded drilling. Yet we know we can't meet our climate goals by squeezing every last drop of oil from the ground. Our national and global leaders must embrace clean solutions instead of exposing coasts, communities, and the climate to irreparable harm.

Cost-Effective Technologies with Lots of Lead Time

In a recent blog and fact sheet, I pointed out that tractor-trailers--which consume about two-thirds of all trucking fuel--can advance from 6 mpg to over 10 mpg with cost-effective technologies, achieving at least a 40 percent reduction in fuel use and carbon pollution. An analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation finds similar results with a payback of 18 months or less.

Manufacturers can meet the proposed standards with a range of technologies, choosing the best for their individual business. According to assessments by the National Academy of Sciences and demonstrations in the Department of Energy SuperTruck program, we can expect widespread improvements to engine combustion cycles and turbochargers, greater automation of transmissions, more efficient drive axle designs, aerodynamic enhancements to tractors and trailers and reduced idling.

Deploying these technologies to meet the second-phase standards before 2027 is certainly feasible. Annually, these standards can reduce fuel use by hundreds of millions of barrels and save billions of dollars in trucking costs. We should capture those savings as quickly as we can. Our air, health, roads and economy will be better for it.

About the Authors

Luke Tonachel

Director, Clean Vehicles and Fuels Project, Energy & Transportation program

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