Electric trucks of all sorts could become commonplace on California’s roadways if state air officials and clean-air advocates get their way.
“We’re sending the market signals that zero-emission trucks are going to be required in California,” said Craig Duehring, who works in the transportation and clean technology branch of the California Air Resources Control Board, or CARB.
The agency updated its draft plan on electric trucks this week to ask manufacturers to create more zero-emission trucks — from full-size pick-up trucks to cement trucks to semi-trucks. The proposal is part of the state’s climate goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2045.
“This is putting us on a path to having 100% of trucks being zero emission by the 2045 time frame where feasible,” said Tony Brazil, branch chief for CARB’s heavy duty diesel implementation branch.
The trucking industry questions the proposal, especially with the pandemic and a possible lengthy recession ahead. Meanwhile environmental advocates say it “shows that CARB is listening to the experts instead of special interests,” said Patricio Portillo, transportation analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council
The plan, if adopted later this year, would be the first of its kind in the country requiring manufacturers to produce electric trucks. It could result in 100,000 zero-emission trucks on roads by 2030 and around 300,000 by 2035.
The estimates are in some cases nearly double a previous draft from 2019, where only about eight percent of trucks would be required to go electric, said Paul Cort, staff attorney with the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice.
“The rule was fairly gentle and had a slow start; it exempted trucks like pickup trucks until 2027,” said Cort. “It just was not aggressive enough to sort of match what was possible and what was needed.”
If the plan succeeds, Cort says, there could be 4,000 zero-emission trucks on California roads by 2024. The deadline for public comment on the truck rule is May 28 and it could be voted on in June.
The proposal comes after CARB adopted a rule in 2018 that requires California public transit agencies to gradually transition to 100 percent zero-emission bus fleets by 2040.
“This is the next step … it doesn't require that all trucks are zero emissions, but it's an important first step to really get that market up and off the ground,” Cort said.
Get the latest coronavirus news straight to your inbox.
Thanks for subscribing!
Thanks! We'll send you the latest coronavirus updates every evening.
Browse all newsletters
Together these moves set California apart in electrifying vehicles, said Dr. Jimmy O’Dea, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“CARB’s decision to nearly double the proposed rule is a big step in the right direction. If passed, it would be the most significant policy to-date for electric trucks in the United States, if not the world.”
Clean air advocates are applauding the draft rule because they say transportation is the biggest cause of air pollution in the state.
“These diesel trucks are the largest source of smog-forming pollution and sick-forming pollution in LA and the San Joaquin Valley,” Cort said. “They're the largest source of cancer risks for communities around these warehousing complexes in the Inland Empire and for communities around the ports.”
The American Lung Association's latest ‘State of the Air’ report revealed that the top spots for the most particle pollution in the entire country are for these areas: Bakersfield, Fresno, Visalia, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Those particles that come from sources like trucks, cars and factories get stuck in lungs and can cause asthma attacks and even lung cancer.
What Does The Trucking World Think?
The trucking industry has had about a day to analyze the updated rule, but Chris Shimoda, Vice President of Government Affairs for the California Trucking Association, says the previous draft rule was already ambitious.
“There are probably less than 100 commercial electric vehicles in existence today operating in smaller scale pilot and demonstration projects,” Shimoda said. “What we're really looking for is, I think, a small scale success rather than a large scale failure.”
He also says there are looming questions about how the pandemic will impact businesses and their ability to invest in green fleets.
“There are some fears that this is going to be a lengthy recovery with depressed demand for some time,” Shimoda said of what he calls mostly a mom-and-pop owned trucking world. “There's just simply going to be less money in private budgets to make these kinds of expenditures and that does need to be reflected in CARB’s planning.”
He says it also may be unrealistic for the trucking industry to go electric so quickly, given that it’s taken decades for passenger car sales to rise. The state has a goal of 5 million zero emission cars on roads by 2030, and as of February just over 700,000 had been sold since 2011.
For the proposal to work, Shimoda says the trucking industry is “going to need state support, by way of incentives to buy what's going to be initially a more expensive truck.”
He also says the industry has major questions about things like charging infrastructure and whether building the new system is realistic in a state facing less funding because of the pandemic.
“There is probably a middle ground between where the advocates on the other side of this are and where we are,” said Shimoda. “We are in month one of assessing what the true impacts to the economy over the longer term are going to be from the pandemic and with the initial timeline for the vehicles.”
Tony Brazil, with CARB, isn’t hiding that it will cost the trucking industry more at first to electrify the fleet in California. He says it will pay off over time and that there are already concepts for the trucks.
“When we're looking at 2024, we're expecting a lot of these trucks to be competitive with diesel and in many cases actually be lower cost to own and operate,” said Brazil. “So there's actually an economic opportunity here.”
Brazil says there may be some funds to incentivize truck companies to get on board, but he says similar funds to the tune of $100 million dollars yearly are taken up in about a week. He says “a tractor today could easily be over $100,000 extra above a normal tractor. But in four or five years, we think that difference is going to be pretty small.”
The price tag for building the infrastructure to charge these trucks will cost millions — if not billions — on its own, but Brazil says the plans hold promise for the most disadvantaged in the state.
“The respiratory problems are much more significant in these areas … with a lot of truck traffic and pollution,” said Brazil. “So actually addressing the pollution problem would actually reduce the burden in those communities.”
War Of Letters
Meanwhile there’s a war of letters happening in the state. It began after several industry groups, including trucking, sent letters to state leadership, including Newsom’s office and CARB. They want old regulations — and even some scheduled to be voted on soon — to be halted as the COVID-19 pandemic escalates.
The letters ask for the loosening of regulations for industries like agriculture, construction, trucking and oil.
In a letter to the governor, Jed Mandel with the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association wrote that “this is not a business as usual situation, and it should not be a regulation as usual situation either.”
He says it was already going to be a challenge to meet the new rules. “They simply are no longer sustainable or implementable on top of the economic strains caused by the on-going COVID-19 crisis and the apparent recession that we now face,” Mandel wrote.
But clean air advocates say the trucking industry has the tech and know-how to begin manufacturing green trucks.
“When they deliver more zero-emission trucks, toxic diesel pollution in communities near ports, freeways, freight rail yards and warehouse districts will drop. And the rule will spur the electric-truck market, creating more high-quality manufacturing jobs, including here in California,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.
More than 30 lawmakers also chimed in with a letter to CARB. They say they share the agency’s goal of protecting air quality, but recognize that the pandemic has transformed life and that a pause until January 2021 on current and proposed rulemakings around freight transportation is needed.
“Preserving the operations of our freight transportation system will be key to protecting our economy,” the lawmakers wrote. “Without a fully functioning supply chain, we risk disrupting the delivery” of critical supplies ranging from medical to groceries.
Environmental and health advocates say these concerns come from companies and trade associations that never liked the standards in the first place.
“They're using this crisis as an excuse to try to weaken or delay those safeguards,” said Bill Magavern, policy director with the Coalition for Clean Air.
He added that the companies have not successfully lobbied California to reduce safeguards so far. “They certainly have succeeded at the federal level where the U.S. EPA is basically giving a lot of the polluters exemptions,” Magavern said.
In response, two rounds of letters from more than 50 environmental advocacy groups and from 37 lawmakers were sent to the governor, the California Environmental Protection Agency and CARB. They want the state to truck on with its environmental goals and regulations.
The letter states, “It’s imperative that we resist efforts to roll back any current protections, and that we instead focus on raising awareness on the importance of healthy lungs, healthy immune systems and maintiating safeguards and health protections in place.”
The letters and the updated CARB plan come as California continues its weeks-long shelter-in-place order, which reports have shown disproportionately impacts disadvantaged communities, as does air quality.
“During times of crisis it is important to be bold and demand the strongest measures necessary to protect working families,” said Andrea Vidaurre, Policy Analyst with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.
“Environmental justice communities across the state need the economic and health benefits that come from stimulating the zero-emission industry. Communities that endure pollution from ‘diesel death zones’ every day need to be heard first and loudest,” she added.
Will Barrett, director of Clean Air Advocacy for the American Lung Association in California, hopes this moment of clean air in California increases the importance of getting more electric vehicles on roads.
“What we would hope would come out of this is that we learn more about what it means to have roads with fewer tailpipes and people having more options for getting around,” Barrett said.