Guess Who Doesn't Like New Fuel-Economy Rules for Trucks? Truckers

Last Updated Nov 17, 2010 4:45 PM EST

For all the announced goodwill over the first-ever federal fuel economy and global warming standards for big tractor trailers, the nature of the long-distance trucking business is bringing some fissures to the surface. Individual owner-operators, as well as large corporate fleets, say that they don't hold on to trucks or trailers long term, and that means they're unduly affected by higher initial prices, and less likely to benefit from fuel-efficiency benefits that accrue over time.

Although the overall agreement between industry and government is as striking as it was between automakers and the Obama administration when the standards for cars were announced last May, trucking has some fundamental differences that are creating tensions.

Trucks are big polluters, using 2.5 million barrels of oil daily and producing about 20 percent of the greenhouse gas from transportation (which has been the fastest growing source of carbon emissions since 1990). And big rigs get an average of only 6.1 miles per gallon today.

One thing everyone agrees on is that a single, clear national law is better than what Treadway called a "patchwork of state laws" that he said creates huge headaches for all types of truckers, from big fleets to single owner-operators. This same issue is at the heart of automakers' support for the federal car rules -- it does away with the separate fuel economy standards maintained by California and the states that followed its rules. No manufacturer wants to build multiple editions of the same model.

The Department of Transportation and the EPA held hearings on proposed regulations in Chicago Monday, and before they started a group of environmental leaders held a press conference at which Don Anair of the Union of Concerned Scientists said that truckers could pay back the cost of fuel economy improvements in one to three years.

"The trucking industry broadly supports the idea of a program of this kind," said Therese Langer of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). "But there are differing views among engine manufacturers, truck builders, suppliers and the trucking industry associations."

Indeed there are. The industry's mainstream trade group, the American Trucking Assocations, is strongly supportive, pointing out that cab designs haven't kept up with the times. In the absence of regulations, companies that led with new aerodynamics and engine technology often lost out because their prices were higher, the group said. Regulations create a level playing field.

"The volatility of fuel prices often undermines the confidence of investors in the new technology," said Langer. "Plus, trucks are often sold after a few years, so there's reluctance to invest when the owner may not appreciate the fuel economy benefits that accrue over the truck's entire life on the road. The upfront costs are an issue, more for individual owners than for large fleet purchasers."

Truck dealers are represented by a special division of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), and they're less sanguine about the rules than ATA is. Speaking in Chicago, Kyle Treadway, chairman of NADA's American truck dealers division, said, "The practical needs of truck customers may sideline the purchase of certain fuel-efficiency features," he said. For instance, he said, "Local delivery customers typically can't justify the cost of aerodynamic bolt-ons or anti-idling controls. That doesn't mean that these features won't work for some, only that they aren't right for all."

But it's precisely these bolt-ons and anti-idling controls that are going to end up on trucks regulated under the proposed 2014 to 2018 law, thus increasing the cost of new vehicles. For their part, environmentalists don't think the rules as proposed go far enough -- they want trailers regulated, too, not just cabs.
"The technology is there to improve trailer efficiency," said Anair. "We think a quarter to a third of the fuel efficiency benefits for trucks could be from the trailer, and it's really critical to include them." But Anair admitted another peculiarity unique to trucking -- cab owners don't usually own the trailers they're hauling, so they won't benefit from aerodynamic and rolling resistance improvements to them.

That's a hurdle to get over, but Peter Zalzal of the Environmental Defense Fund says it's worth the effort. "These made-in-America clean trucks will deliver new job opportunities in manufacturing at the same time they are delivering freight with more efficiency and less pollution," he said. According to Zalzal, the standards will, over their five-model-year lifetime, reduce oil consumption by more than 500 million barrels, will save more than $41 billion in fuel costs, will cut global warming pollution by 250 million metric tons, and will save individual truckers up to $74,000.

Trucks are commercial vehicles, so they operate under different rules than cars. That's no big surprise. But the unique ways trucks differ are only now becoming clear, as the first-ever fuel economy and greenhouse regulations are being proposed for them.

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Photo: Flickr/K. Clark David