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

, former president | June 19, 2015, 11:55 am EDT
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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.

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

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

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 year due to this cut in the costs of transporting goods, and likely much more.

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.

CORRECTION: In the original version of the post, the first sentence read “six miles on a gallon of gas” rather than diesel.

Posted in: Global Warming, Vehicles Tags: ,

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  • Overy1954

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  • Thank you for your comments.

    in answer to your question, the draft regulations do not mandate the use of super-single tires. Instead, the rule sets an overall performance standard, and leaves it up to the trucking industry to determine the most cost-effective and safe way to accomplish the results. The rule gives manufacturers long-term
    certainty when it comes to investing in fuel economy and choice in reaching the
    goal, which will give fleets a more diverse assortment of efficient options
    when spec’ing their trucks. That’s why there has been general, broad
    support for the regulation across the industry, from fleets to manufacturers.

    Of course, improvements in fuel economy must not come at the expense of safety.
    You might want to review the Regulatory Impact Analysis of the draft rule that was issued by the EPA and NHTSA. Click this page — — and click on Regulatory Impact Analysis. Chapter 9 reviews the studies on the safety impacts of various technologies, and concludes that “taken
    together, these studies suggest that the fuel efficiency improving technologies
    assessed in the studies can be implemented with no degradation in overall
    safety.” You might also want to review a National Academy of Sciences report, which analyzes the safety of various tires. Here is a link:–and-heavy-duty-vehicles (see page 113)

    Retired freightliner:
    No one doubts that these trucks are doing a lot of work—essentially every product we buy is on a truck at some point in its journey, so the trucking industry is a cornerstone of our economy. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do better, and a gradually increasing fuel economy standard is a tried and true way of making progress. As we wrote in our Engines for Change report, there are numerous market barriers which stand in
    the way of broad deployment of fuel efficiency technologies—so much, in fact,
    that some fleets have turned to creating their own aftermarket solutions.
    This rule is an opportunity to bring some certainty to the market, giving
    manufacturers the incentive to make long-term investments no matter what fuel
    prices are.

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  • Heidi Dotson

    Hello. I am, believe it or not a truck driver and environmentalist, minimalist, and future owner of a tiny house on wheels. I very much care about fuel efficiency. I also very much care about human life and well being. I will look into this further; but tell me–does part of this fuel economy include use of super single tires? I am curious. I have had to drive equipment with them and found them to be extremely dangerous on wet pavement, graveled surfaces, and in nearly all winter storm weather conditions. They have highly reduced tractíon, causing greatly reduced control, leading to trucks getting stuck on the highway and causing jacknifes, increasing highway accidents and fatalities. I quit a trucking company that solely used these tires because I felt my safety was greatly threatened and I got stuck several times, unable to move my equipment on the roadway and on private property during winter and also during moderate weather conditions. In snow and rain, driving with super singles is nearly equivalent to driving on bald tires in a car. Very scary and you can feel the equipment hydro-planing and shimmying. I hope these super singles beome outlawed. At east, I’m certain they will be deemed unsafe and obselete once there have been enough fatalities to convince the federal government. In another example, at highway speeds, I experienced a super single tire blow out. It nearly caught on fire and the trailer nearly rolled over before I could pull over to the berm, as all the rubber quickly ripped away, causing the metal rim and suspension assembly to fall down and meet the asphalt, forcing the trailer to lean violently sideways and placing a force upon the equipment that destabilized the 10 feet tall, tightly packed load of freight inside, and also creating instantaneous and extreme friction on the asphalt. Metal, rubber, and asphalt colliding with the force of 20,000 pounds spinning at high revolutions will catch fire rapidly. Because there is not a second or companion tire to suspend the equipment in the event of a blow-out, everything–wheel assembly, brakes, axel, and suspension comes down hard onto the roadway, offsetting stability of the load inside the trailer and posing a dangerous threat to any vehicle in the near vicinity. I sincerely hope these dangerous “single” and super wide tire assemblies are not part of this new fuel efficiency program. If they are, brace for some widespread mahem. Thanks for looking into this. I will do the same.

    Heidi Dotson

    • Just Roll With It

      Heidi, while some might empathize with your anecdotes this blog is not about traffic safety. The good people at UCS are here to push our agenda (in this instance fuel economy and strict regulation of the trucking industry). Sorry you can’t seem to adapt to changes we demand but there are hundreds of millions of people around the globe who will have to suck it up, too. You must understand activists drive the decisions and we expect people like you to drive the trucks. Just deal with it because we have an agenda to push here. If you don’t feel comfortable operating our mandated equipment surely there are others who will take up the challenge. This issue could be resolved by bringing in more immigrants into the US, no? They do not let their emotions get in the way of doing what they are told. How difficult can it be to drive a truck anyway? Can’t be nearly as draining as being an activist masquerading as a scientist – now I could tell you a few hairy stories about that, but this is neither the time nor the place.

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  • This is a prime candidate for energy efficiency improvements via government subsidy, so as to have long-term impacts on our nation’s carbon footprint.

  • Retired Freightliner

    In the future please engage credible authors. You open with feigned alarm that “Tractor trailers go about six miles on a gallon of gas…” when even the most sheltered observer knows these trucks “go” on diesel fuel, not gasoline…and 6 mpg is quite impressive under the circumstances. Your next embarrassing boner is in failing to recognize how much improvement there already has been — much greater than mileage improvements in light vehicles. In 1990 the industry standard mileage was about 3 mpg diesel fuel for heavy trucks, now DOUBLED to 6, still improving and comparing favorably to about 18mpg gasoline for light vehicles in 1990, now ONLY ABOUT 30% better at around 24. Why do you think 6 mpg is low? If you would review the law of thermodynamics you would learn energy is expended commensurate with the work being done, and these trucks are really working – hauling some 40 tons gross vehicle weight of useful cargo from producer to market, 24/7. Contrast that with light vehicles carting some 2 tons of frilly vehicle and useless flabbery-assed driver 30 miles round trip on weekdays to work in a cubicle and maybe 50 miles round trip out to the farmers market on weekends to buy a $5 heirloom tomato and an $8 dozen of free range eggs. The trucking industry continues to improve, with or without your naive nanny state regulations. Efficiency has always been in the best interest of fleet managers and professional drivers, a concept entirely lost on the average know-nothing proselytizing UCS ideologue, apparently.

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