Beyond 18-wheelers: How the EPA wants to clean up trucking around the US

Delivery trucks, school buses, and other short-haul vehicles will electrify much faster than big rigs, easing air pollution in urban neighborhoods.
giant truck on road picturesque

New EPA rules go beyond long-haul trucking. DepositPhotos

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In the 20 months since Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which offered billions in subsidies for clean energy projects and electric vehicles, President Joe Biden has sought to supplement those climate carrots with a few key sticks. The Environmental Protection Agency has in recent months raced to roll them out, in the form of key regulations that penalize carbon emissions from power plants, oil wells, and passenger cars, under an effort to finalize new rules before the election.

The administration on March 29 finalized the last of those rules, a set of strict standards for carbon emissions from big rigs and other heavy-duty vehicles. This regulation has been among the most controversial Biden climate rules, in large part because it pushes up against the limits of available technology: Freight companies and trucking industry advocates have argued that the rule could force them to abandon diesel engines before electric drivetrains are ready to replace them in long-haul tractor-trailers. The EPA weakened the rule from an earlier version in response to those concerns, delaying the mandate for the largest trucks by a few years.

But the rule goes beyond long-haul trucking. It also applies to a wide range of other heavy-duty vehicles, including garbage trucks, box trucks, cement mixers, and school buses. These vehicles spew toxic air pollution just like 18-wheelers, but they travel far fewer miles and carry lighter loads, making them easier to replace with electric models.

“When you look at the share of vehicles, even in the tractor-trailer space, a huge chunk of those don’t travel more than 250 miles per day,” said Dave Cooke, a vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a climate advocacy organization. “There is a significant chunk of the sector that could be electrified now, because a large portion of it has these really distinct routes.” The rule will apply to about 11 million heavy-duty vehicles in the United States.

The trucking industry’s opposition to the rule has centered on what EV drivers often call range anxiety: Tractor-trailers have to haul heavy loads down interstate highways for hours at a time, and many existing batteries aren’t quite up to the task of replacing diesel engines over such long ranges. Furthermore, the few electric tractor-trailers on the market right now are several times more expensive than conventional models, and there are few places to charge them. The Biden administration has sought to remedy this infrastructure gap with a “zero-emission freight corridors strategy” that will channel chargers and grid investments toward interstates that carry an outsize share of long-haul freight.

But a large percentage of trucks and heavy-duty vehicles don’t make long trips and so don’t need to worry so much about range. Garbage trucks, city buses, and delivery vehicles, for example, travel just a few hundred miles each day at most, within the range of current battery technology, and they return to a depot or warehouse where they can charge overnight. 

Even the Clean Freight Coalition, which represents freight companies and truck dealers, has found that most of these vehicles could go electric using available technology. A recent report from the group found that electric models on the market right now could handle 93 percent of medium-duty trucking routes, with only the longest 7 percent requiring more juice than current batteries can offer. That’s compared to just half of all tractor-trailer routes, according to the report.

The electric transition among short-haul vehicles is already happening in many parts of the country. The Biden administration has doled out billions of dollars to cities like Baltimore to roll out electric school buses, and companies like Amazon have deployed a growing number of electric Rivian delivery trucks on package routes. 

The nation’s most ambitious effort is afoot in California, which has been seeking federal permission to impose even stricter truck emissions standards than the EPA. It has been making an aggressive push to decarbonize short-haul trucking, otherwise known as drayage. Trucks unloading freight from the nation’s two biggest ports, in Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, make thousands of trips through residential neighborhoods, and the state is pushing companies to go electric and improve air quality in those areas.

The Biden administration’s new rule sets a faster timeline for things like delivery vans and utility trucks than it does for tractor-trailers. The standards for those smaller vehicles start in the 2027 model year, but standards for “sleeper cab” long-haul rigs don’t take effect until 2030, a change that represents a big concession to concerns from the trucking industry. 

“We thank [EPA] for addressing industry concern about the challenges of the early years of the rule, and we remain committed to upholding the spirit of this regulation,” Sean Waters, an executive at the major trucking company Daimler, said in a statement following the rule’s announcement.

Like the EPA’s previous rule on passenger cars, the truck rule is “technology neutral,” meaning it doesn’t mandate an electric transition. Instead it sets goals for the carbon emissions of a truck manufacturer’s entire fleet, giving them the option to increase the fuel efficiency of their diesel engines or offer hybrid or electric models. The agency laid out a hypothetical scenario showing how a company could reach compliance in model year 2032 by rolling out a line of hybrid delivery vans and school buses. Two-thirds of its tractor-trailers would still run on diesel, with a smaller number of hydrogen fuel cell trucks thrown into the mix as well.

Cooke says the agency could have pushed companies harder to switch to zero-emission vehicles given that the technology for electrified short-haul trucks already exists. 

“This rule doesn’t put that guarantee in place, that we’re going to see zero-emission trucks in communities on the ground that are dealing with the trucking sector,” he said, adding that he had hoped for a “stronger signal” to companies and utilities to invest in electric trucks and transmission infrastructure to charge them.

Even so, the rule will still lead to significant air quality improvements, says Laura Kate Bender, who leads healthy air advocacy at the American Lung Association. That will be true even for cities without major trucking routes or large ports, she said: Large local vehicles like buses and garbage trucks are some of the most polluting on the average city street, and a strong push to replace them with electric models will ease the burden on frontline communities.

“There’s a lot of different types of trucks, beyond the big long-haul trucks that we think of on the highway, that are actually in folks’ neighborhoods,” said Bender. “We’re excited to see the cleanup that this leads to.”

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