Bring on the high(er) efficiency trucks

Well, the last month has been a nice little run on the heavy-duty vehicle efficiency front in the U.S. In his State of the Union address, President Obama declared that he’d build on the success of car and light-truck fuel economy standards by “setting new standards for our trucks” as part of his year of action. The Consumer Federation of America released a study that indicates that the average American household stands to gain up to $250 per year from more efficient trucks. The California Air Resources Board is targeting about 5% per year in truck efficiency improvements through 2025 for their overall long-term climate goals, as they begin work with the federal US agencies on the next truck rules. Secretary of State John Kerry began a cooperative effort with counterparts in China to implement plans for post-2020 climate emission reductions from heavy-duty vehicles.

And now President Obama, addressing trucking industry leaders and environmental groups at a Safeway distribution center in Maryland, has officially kicked off the administration’s work to develop the next heavy-duty vehicle efficiency standards. He directed two agencies, US EPA and DOT, “to develop fuel economy standards for heavy-duty trucks that will take us well into the next decade, just like our cars. And they’re going to partner with manufacturers and autoworkers and states and other stakeholders, truckers, to come up with a proposal by March of next year, and they’ll complete the rule a year after that.” The standards would pick up where the standards adopted already for 2014-2018 model years left off, applying to new 2019 and later trucks.

To meet the president’s deadline of a formal proposal in March 2015, much of the underlying technical work will have to largely be hashed out in 2014. So now the real work and decision-making begins – drafting the rules that build on the Phase 1 foundation to promote the next generation of cost-effective technologies. Below are a handful of critical technical-regulatory topic areas that will essentially define how strong the impact of the Phase 2 rules will be.

  • Integrating trailers. Phase 1 did not incorporate the immense technology potential now being embraced by trailer efficiency leaders. Considering how cost-effective available trailer technologies are, Phase 2 would leave a conspicuous gap if it did not incorporate the other part of the tractor-trailer combination, but how, precisely, with new regulatory procedures, is a key remaining question.
  • Including transmissions and hybrids in the rule. The previous regulatory procedures made it pretty onerous for advanced new transmissions and hybrid vehicles to get credited, and therefore missed an opportunity to better promote these technologies’ deployment. Considering the new advanced transmissions and hybrid offerings since 2010, the new rulemaking could do better to help nudge these technologies into the market.
  • Promoting more efficiency technologies in vocational trucks. The previous rule used a catch-all category of “vocational” trucks for dump trucks, urban delivery vehicles, and buses, and basically punted on analyzing their technology potential. This round could help understand and promote what efficiency potential there is within these truck segments and how best to account for their diverse uses on new test procedures.
  • Moving toward technology-forcing standards. The previous standards were done quickly and were widely seen as locking in industry trends to adopt off-the-shelf technology (for a ~6-23% reduction in fuel use by truck type). Now, new research and technology announcements are suggesting far more technology could be available in 2020–2025 and beyond.
  • Advancing pickup and van technology. These “Class 2b and 3” trucks are cousins of light-duty pickups that are getting major efficiency overhauls as part of the 2017-2025 car rule. Technology-neutral standards might potentially achieve similar improvements, on a percentage basis, for their heavy-duty counterparts.
  • Treating natural gas. No conversation about future trucks is complete without consideration of natural gas. Previous vehicle efficiency rulemakings have worked through complicated decisions about what is happening upstream to produce natural gas, and how to credit and incentivize its use at the vehicle.

In grappling with the questions above, the agencies’ engineers, and industry’s, will have their work cut out for them. It is especially exciting to see just how positive all the industry stakeholders are. The Heavy Duty Vehicle Efficiency Leadership Group, including a trailer manufacturer (Wabash), major powertrain players (Cummins and Eaton), and fleets (FedEx, Con-Way, and Waste Management), are actively engaged in the process. And the industry players within US DOE’s SuperTruck teams have been active in showing what is achievable – and it’s clear that there’s a lot of potential efficiency improvements on the way (as in these examples, from Cummins, Daimler, Volvo, and Navistar).

Let’s see just how efficient trucks might get.