The accelerating market for zero emission trucks

Tesla Semi prototype. Photo: Smnt, Creative Commons

The recent reveal of the Tesla semi-truck is  garnering  attention for the role zero emission vehicles can play in the future of trucking.

Much of the excitement around zero emission trucks stems from the fact that medium-and-heavy duty trucks – critical tools of our modern economy that operate daily in our neighborhoods and communities — have outsized environmental and health impacts.

Trucks today emit dangerous pollutants, including:

Zero emission vehicles are exciting because of their ability to drive progress on all of these pollutants simultaneously.

A clear indicator of the emergence of zero emission trucks is the plethora of recent product announcements from major manufacturers:

Multiple large manufacturers are investing in electric trucks because they recognize a robust, long-term market for these products. These investments reinforce each other by building resilient supply chains, industry knowledge, and production scale.

Most zero emission truck announcements have been for urban or regional vehicle platforms. Urban areas stand to benefit greatly from the significant reduction in local air pollution offered by zero emission trucks because cities’ density means that many people will get to breathe cleaner air. Buses and delivery vehicles typically have modest daily range demands and predicable charging patterns.

Drayage vehicles should be another high-priority for electrification. These trucks run cargo in and out of marine ports and railyards, frequently traversing dense urban neighborhoods. Often these vehicles are among the oldest and highest polluting trucks on the road. Replacing them with zero emission solutions provides critical local air quality benefits to overburdened communities while also driving meaningful greenhouse gas reductions. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 1,200 pounds of nitrogen oxides  and more than 100 pounds  of particulate matter could be reduced annually by replacing an old diesel drayage truck with a zero emission vehicle. More than 12 tons of carbon dioxide would also be reduced each year.

Zero emission solutions are needed for freight operations too. A recent ICCT analysis found wide-scale adoption of electric tractor-trailers in Europe would reduce climate emissions by 115 million tons in 2050 beyond a scenario that relied solely on maximizing diesel truck efficiency. The analysis illustrates a crucial point – in order to get the largest clean air and climate benefits from freight trucks, we will need both zero emission trucks and significantly more fuel efficient diesel trucks. Each vehicle configuration has an important role to play.

The U.S. Clean Trucks program, extended and strengthened in 2016 by the Obama Administration, is a model that other countries can follow for driving efficiency improvements. It sets long-term, protective standards. The latest round of the standards will cut more than a billion tons of carbon emissions and save truck owners $170 billion dollars. The program enjoys broad support among manufacturers, fleets, shippers and clean air advocates.

The Trump Administration has taken aim at key Clean Truck program provisions that drive improvements in trailer design and close a loophole for super-polluting trucks. Defending the popular and effective program from these pernicious attacks must be an imperative for the freight industry. No company wants its freight hauled by a truck that spews 40 times more pollution or contributes to an additional 1,600 premature deaths annually. Electric semi-trucks will of course be pulling trailers. These trailers will need to be designed with fuel efficiency in mind if electric semi-trucks are to deliver on their full potential.

Zero emission freight trucks need to be operated in a manner that minimizes lifecycle emissions across the entire freight system. Thus, green freight best practices are relevant for zero emission vehicles too. These vehicles will need to complement use of freight rail, which emits more than 80 percent less carbon per ton mile than conventional trucks. They will need to be regularly run with full loads to minimize lifecycle emissions per ton mile. They should be charged primarily by renewable energy. All of these actions, made by fleets, will be influenced by the demands of cargo owners.

It is time for companies and communities to pay attention to these zero emission solutions. These trucks have a clear near-term role in urban delivery. Embracing low and zero emissions drayage solutions will provide immediate and significant human health benefits for communities near ports and railyards. In the years ahead, ZEVs will even have a role in longer-haul operations.

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