US Agencies Move to Green Heavy Vehicles

When you think of cutting-edge green vehicle technology, a giant semi-truck probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Despite the fact that large trucks, trailers, and buses account for some 20% of carbon emissions from transportation in the United States, they have long been overlooked as a source of potential fuel savings. Fortunately this is now change, as the Obama administration moves ahead with plans to improve the fuel economy of heavy-duty vehicles, which were first unveiled back in October.

Last week the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration held two public hearings on proposed new efficiency rules for very large vehicles. At both hearings the testimony was dominated by groups and individuals favoring the strongest possible fuel efficiency standards—including representatives of both environmental and labor organizations.

It shouldn’t be surprising that building a new generation of (comparatively) green heavy-duty vehicles is such a popular idea. According to the Sierra Club, many large trucks on the road today get only six to seven miles for every gallon of gas they burn. This isn’t just bad news for air quality and the climate; in hard economic times, it takes a heavy toll on the financial resources of truckers. By setting the first-ever fuel economy standards for the biggest vehicles traversing US roads, government agencies hope to save consumers money while protecting the planet and reducing dependence on dirty oil for fuel.

So exactly what are the green vehicle standards now on the table? Last month the EPA and the federal Transportation Department proposed that by 2018 fuel economy standards should improve 10% for gas-powered heavy-duty vans and pickup trucks, 15% for similar vehicles that run on diesel power, and 20% for tractor-trailers and long-haul trucks. Some nonprofits are pushing for even stronger standards; the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy believes the fuel efficiency of long-haul trucks could be feasibly be increased as much as 35% by the year 2017.

The national energy bill passed by Congress in 2007 mandated for the first time ever that federal agencies should together to propose and implement fuel efficiency standards for the nation’s heaviest vehicles. By following through on this obligation, the Obama administration is building on previous work that will improve passenger vehicle fuel efficiency standards for the first time since 1990. Standards adopted this spring will boost the corporate average fuel economy standard for light vehicles to 35.5 miles per gallon by the year 2016, and the administration is eyeing even more aggressive green vehicle standards for the model years between 2017 and 2025.

In the absence of Congressional action to reduce climate change and invest in renewable energy, these efforts to green US vehicles may be the most important step this country has taken to reduce carbon emissions so far. While cutting back on pollution that contributes to global warming, better fuel economy standards for cars and trucks of all sizes will also bolster national security and decrease our dependence on foreign oil. It is now incumbent on the EPA and the Transportation Department to seize this opportunity and set the strongest standards possible for the biggest vehicles on the roads.

Photo credit: Andrew Atzert