The Biggest Climate Regulation You Might Not Know About

, senior vehicles analyst | August 6, 2015, 9:20 am EDT
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The web is abuzz right now over the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and rightly so—this is one of the President’s key items under his Climate Action Plan. But did you know that the EPA recently proposed another major climate regulation? In June, the EPA and NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) proposed a major new phase of regulations that will reduce fuel consumption and global warming emissions from heavy-duty trucks.

Trucks are a major contributor to climate change

Since 1990, the United States has seen a slight (~5%) increase in its net global warming emissions, approximately split between increases in emissions from stationary sources like power plants and mobile sources like cars and trucks. Over that same timeframe, miles traveled by light-duty vehicles has increased about 35%, while miles traveled by heavy-duty trucks has increased by a whopping 88%.  Emissions from commercial trucks now make up over 7% of the total global warming emissions emitted by the United States, nearly double the share in 1990 and increasing each year.

While the first phase of truck standards that went into effect last year will help slow this rise, over the next 20 years heavy-duty truck emissions are expected to grow by 15%, while those from passenger vehicles will fall by 23%. In fact, the expected rise in emissions from heavy-duty trucks means that on-road emissions will remain above 1990 levels for the foreseeable future under current policies.

Global Warming Emissions (LDVs, HDVs) (1990-2040)

Over the past decade, global warming emissions and fuel consumption by commercial vehicles has continued to increase, while those of passenger vehicles is declining. We need strong standards for heavy-duty vehicles to put the entire transportation sector on a sustainable future course. (1990-2011 data from EPA; 2012-2040 data from EIA)

Why will trucks increase emissions without action?

There are two reasons why passenger vehicles and commercial trucks are on diverging paths when it comes to fuel use and emissions, one related to miles traveled and the other to efficiency.

Commercial truck use is more directly correlated to the economy, as one would expect, and so there is a larger growth in miles traveled for trucks compared to passenger vehicles as the economy improves. However, this small difference in growth comes nowhere near explaining why despite both cars and trucks increasing miles traveled, passenger vehicle emissions are expected to fall while truck emissions are expected to rise.

The biggest reason for the continued increase in emissions from the heavy-duty sector is the simple fact that truck efficiency has, on average, remained stuck in the 1970s at about 6 miles per gallon. Fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles are slated to cut fuel consumption from new cars by nearly 50%, compared to 2010; however, current standards for trucks would reduce fuel consumption by just 14%.  We must do better—and we can.

How to reduce fuel use and emissions from heavy-duty trucks

Our analysis shows that cost-effective technologies like trailer aerodynamic devices and waste heat recovery can be implemented over the next decade to improve the fuel economy of new trucks by 40% by 2025, compared to 2010. Strong regulation can help break through the market barriers that inhibit further reduction in fuel consumption from heavy-duty trucks. Last month, the EPA and NHTSA proposed rules that would achieve a 36% reduction by 2027—a good start, but we know they can do better.

Today I’m in Chicago, testifying at a public hearing held by the EPA and NHTSA about how their proposed regulations can be improved. Achieving a 40% reduction by 2025 would save an additional 200,000 barrels of oil per day in 2035 compared to the agencies’ proposal—enough savings to offset the growing rise in fuel use and emissions from these trucks and help put the entire transportation sector on a more sustainable path.

With a strong rule in place, the average tractor-trailer driver would save about $30,000 in fuel each year, and consumers like you or me would save over $100 each year in freight costs. Making that happen now is a no-brainer.

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  • Joe Licari

    I have always thought it fairly incredible that heavy-duty trucks have not improved their efficiency very much. Why is it that it takes government regulations and mandates to produce change? Can it be that commercial trucking can just pass on the cost of doing business? Does the ability to tack on fuel surcharges diminish any drive to be more efficient? Recently a major US carrier reported lower earning for the second quarter. Part of the reason they stated was the reduction of fuel surcharges with the decrease in diesel fuel prices. I find that incredible and possibly a disincentive to reduce fuel use. It sounds like they were making a profit off fuel surcharges that, eventually, the consumer pays for.
    A lot of money is being spent by the federal government to improve heavy-duty truck fuel efficiency and commensurate reductions in GHG and toxic air contaminants, e.g. DOE’s SuperTruck program. I’d like to see the technologies being used incorporated into trucks as soon as possible. But why the apparent intransigence from the trucking industry? Perhaps, like most businesses, it is hesitant to spend money on new and what they may see as unproven technologies. If that’s the case then the government could help by providing incentives to make efficiency changes.
    One means to improve efficiency is to eliminate idling. Over-the-road trucking is required by federal mandate to park for 10 hours a day (can work for 14 with 11 driving hours) and to park for at least 34 hours once a week. A consequence of this is truck stops and service areas packed with parked trucks. If it is hot or cold drivers idle their engines for comfort and hotel loads. This exposes drivers to vibration, noise, and diesel emissions while they are trying to rest.
    Reducing idling should be included as an element in meeting improved efficiency standards. And it may also improve the health of long-haul drivers.
    Idle reduction technologies and other fuel efficiency systems have been in existence for years. Yet, from my observations, it does not seem that they have made the market penetration that would be expected when they have a good return on investment. Trailer skirts and APUs have been available for years and I do see more of them on the road, especially skirts, but you would think that every trailer used on the highway would have them by now. They don’t. You would also expect that most OTR drivers would be using some anti-idling technology by now and not idle. They aren’t, at least from what I have seen.
    The US uses incentives to help make the electric vehicle market successful. Perhaps the same types of initiatives are needed in the heavy-duty truck market to improve efficiency, including idle reduction. Yes, I work in the idle reduction field but the benefits to drivers, trucking companies, local communities, and the country are significant.

    • As you note, while fleet operators are certainly concerned about saving fuel, there are market barriers that inhibit the adoption of some fuel saving technologies as well as investment in further developing new technologies to save fuel. This was one of the points of discussion we tried to get across in our report, Engines for Change: http://ucsusa.org/enginesforchange . There are a lot of complexities in the freight sector that I think would surprise many people, but the effect of a fuel surcharge is probably the clearest example.

      The EPA and NHTSA have projected widespread adoption of idle-reduction technologies across the heavy-duty sector as necessary to meet their proposed regulations for 2018-2029–as you note, this can lead to significant reductions not just in fuel usage and global warming emissions but also in harmful criteria pollution as well. It doesn’t make sense to use a 13L or 15L engine just to power electronics and HVAC, and we are certainly committed to seeing ubiquitous use of auxiliary power units or shorepower and other alternatives as a strategy to provide truckers with comfort without unnecessary fuel use. Strong fuel economy regulations that take into account idle fuel usage will help drive this.

  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for your efforts to get the transportation industry to do more to reduce the emissions from heavy trucks. They will resist, of course. But the public needs to insist that these reductions are necessary. Keep up your good work!