Cheers all around as Obama sets fuel efficiency goals for big trucks

First US fuel efficiency rules for heavy-duty trucks, unveiled Tuesday, are embraced by trucking firms, manufacturers, and environmentalists. They'll cut fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Executives from the US truck manufacturing industry gather outside the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 9, after meeting with President Obama on new fuel efficiency standards for work trucks, buses, and other heavy duty vehicles.

The Obama administration on Tuesday unveiled the nation's first fuel-efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks, a move embraced by truck manufacturers and trucking companies trying to slash fuel costs – as well as by environmentalists seeking to slow global warming.

Coming on the heels of the administration's move to require better mileage for cars and light trucks, the new standards for heavy trucks are calculated to save 530 million barrels of oil, cut $50 billion from fuel costs, and slash greenhouse gas emissions by about 270 million tons over the lifetimes of trucks built from 2014 to 2018.

The standards call for commercial trucks to reduce by up to 20 percent fuel consumption and pollution emissions, beginning with 2014 models. Heavy-duty pickups and vans, a separate class of vehicles, will need to curb fuel use and emissions to achieve up to a 15 percent reduction by 2018. So-called "vocational vehicles," such as garbage trucks or fire engines, will have to cut emissions and fuel use by about 10 percent by 2018.

The White House touted the fact that truck manufacturers and many in the trucking industry support the new standards, just as it noted auto manufacturers' backing for the fuel efficiency standards for light vehicles, announced last month.

“While we were working to improve the efficiency of cars and light-duty trucks, something interesting happened,” President Obama said in a statement Tuesday at the unveiling of the new standards. “We started getting letters asking that we do the same for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. They were from the people who build, buy, and drive these trucks. And today, I’m proud to have the support of these companies as we announce the first-ever national policy to increase fuel efficiency and decrease greenhouse gas pollution from medium- and heavy-duty trucks.”

While the trucking industry routinely highlights its focus on fuel efficiency, the logic of seeking to raise the bar was clear. Overall, transportation accounts for about 72 percent of domestic oil consumption. Heavy-duty vehicles use 17 percent of all oil used for transportation in the US – and 12 percent of all US oil consumption, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports.

But cutting fuel use won't be cheap. Despite available "off the shelf" efficiency technologies, getting to the higher standard will cost nearly $8 billion, the EPA estimates. Even so, benefits – which include cutting health-care costs as a result of reduced pollution – are pegged at $49 billion, the EPA found.

Truck operators will also save at the pump. A semi-truck operator could save enough fuel to pay for technology upgrades in less than a year, while saving $73,000 in fuel over the fuel-efficient truck’s useful life, the EPA reported.

But the trucking industry's embrace of the new rules may have as much to do with seeing the writing on the wall in California, which is beginning to clamp down in earnest on carbon emissions, industry officials say. Wanting to be out in front of that pending demand to cut greenhouse gas emissions was as much a driver as White House wooing, say industry representatives.

"There's always been an inherent motivation by truck manufacturers to make fuel-efficient rigs," says Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a diesel truck industry advocacy group. "But California is moving forward with a variety of steps to regulate CO2 emissions. Truck makers recognize that this opens a new chapter in how to think about emissions and the need to be ahead of the curve."

Fuel-saving technologies include advances in combustion efficiency, waste heat recovery, improved efficiency through advanced turbo-charging, and fuel injection, Mr. Schaeffer says. Other technologies such as lower-rolling resistance tires, aerodynamics, and idle-reduction strategies will cut fuel use, too.

Not all vehicles will use the same approach. While long-haul trucks save fuel mainly from aerodynamic improvements that cut vehicle drag, local pickup and delivery trucks will increasingly use hybrid power trains that reap gains from electric drive motors and regenerative braking because of the stop-and-go nature of their operations.

Environmentalists are cheering, too. Nearly 6 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions – and 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector in 2007 – were from heavy-duty vehicles, the EPA says. Chopping more than a quarter-billion tons of CO2 emissions from truck emissions is a good step, green groups said.

“It’s great to see Washington get something so right,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “Thanks to these new standards, everybody wins: Truck drivers save money at the pump, America imports less foreign oil, and we all get to breathe cleaner air.”

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