With the ability to get just about anything you want delivered the next day thanks to services like Amazon Prime and companies like FedEx and UPS, we rarely question how these systems work—and at what cost. Today we are releasing a report called Engines for Change that examines exactly this question. How much oil do trucks and freight really use? What can we do to use less fuel while providing the expected level of service that is so closely woven into our daily lives?
Big rigs and the big role they play
For so many of us, the only real interaction we have with the heavy-duty trucks that deliver our goods every day is on the highway, where we probably all too frequently curse them for clogging the lanes or making it difficult for us to merge. These trucks, however, serve as a backbone for our economy. Trucks in this country move TRILLIONS of dollars’ worth of goods, far more than the amount (by value, tons, or even ton-miles) by any other mode. Even goods that come into the country by ship or travel a majority of their distance by plane or rail inevitably end up on trucks before they make it to the store or your doorstep.
The big amount of oil behind the goods you buy
But behind this freight movement is a dirty little secret—it takes a lot of oil to get that stuff to you. On average each year, just from the trucks that get things where they need to go—whether that’s a farmer looking for seeds and fertilizer or you looking to pick up a loaf of bread from the store—it takes about 70 gallons of oil for every American! And while “Well, maybe we just need less stuff” may be a reasonable retort, I should point out that it takes over 2.5 BILLION gallons of oil just for food, which I’m pretty sure we couldn’t do without. But that doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to this fact—we can use less oil.
Big savings from vehicle standards
It may surprise you that the average truck gets just 6 miles per gallon, but I think what is even more staggering is the fact that this number has barely budged over the past 40 years. Trucks have certainly improved in that timeframe—they are lighter, so they can carry more stuff, and their engines burn a lot cleaner. But the fundamental fact is that they continue to use a lot of fuel, and the “invisible hand” has not done its job at moving technologies that we know are cost-effective into the market for a number of complex reasons. This is why the EPA and DOT (through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA) enacted the first-ever fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles back in 2011. But we can do more.
Our analysis shows that the average new truck in 2025 could use 40 percent less fuel than a 2010 truck. If those vehicles made up our fleet today, we could save over $30 BILLION in fuel costs, costs that trickle down to you the consumer in every product you buy and can improve the economy. We would save over 570,000 barrels of oil PER DAY, which is more than all the oil being produced in Alaska. And we could avoid 112 million metric tons of global warming emissions annually, equivalent to shutting down 30 coal-fired power plants permanently. The opportunity is in front of us right now to put the freight sector on a trajectory for a cleaner transportation future.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.