A View from the Hill: Hybrid Trucks Deliver the Environmental and Economic Goods

Capitol Hill, Washington DCOn my way to Logan Airport for an early morning flight to DC recently, I got stuck behind an old diesel truck.  Black smoke billowed from the tailpipe.  "It doesn't have to be this way," I thought to myself.

As it happened, I was on my way to Hybrid Day on the Hill, an event organized by CALSTART's Hybrid Truck Users' Forum. The purpose of this event was to demonstrate to policymakers that technologies are available today that significantly cut fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions, while contributing to energy independence and expanding manufacturing jobs here in the US.

As my cab drove up to the US Capitol that foggy May morning, I saw a long line of hybrid trucks parked by the reflecting pool.  I was struck by the variety of vehicles on display: pickup and delivery trucks, utility bucket trucks, even refuse trucks.  Both hybrid electric and hybrid hydraulic models were featured; some ran on diesel and others on gasoline.

The range of companies involved was also impressive.  Powertrain and truck makers included ArvinMeritor, Azure Dynamics, Bosch Rexroth, Daimler Trucks, Eaton, Kenworth, Mack, Navistar, Odyne/Dueco, and Peterbilt.   Among the fleets were FedEx, UPS, Nestle Waters, Wal-Mart, Waste Management, and several electrical utilities.

What really hit me was how far the hybrid truck market has come since 2004, when EDF's partnership with FedEx launched the first commercially available hybrid trucks.  There are now 37 different hybrid truck models on the market.  Over 1300 hybrid trucks are on the road or on order in North America, in over 100 fleets.

My remarks during the briefing focused on the environmental benefits of hybrid trucks – how they reduce fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions by 20-50%, and smog-forming NOx emissions by 25%.  Hybrid trucks also emit 95% less particulate matter (soot) than the older trucks they typically replace.

The other speakers rounded out the picture:  Bill Van Amburg of CALSTART spoke of the growth and diversification of the hybrid truck market.  Marcy Lowe of Duke University spoke of a new study showing that the United States currently leads hybrid truck manufacturing, and that expanding this sector improves our global competitiveness and creates jobs right here in the USA.  Manufacturers and fleets in attendance all testified to the reliability of the trucks.

So with their hefty fuel savings, low emissions, reliable performance, and economic benefits, what's not to like about hybrids?  Cost is still an issue:  until we reach full-scale production, the price premium for a hybrid is still too high for many fleets to justify.  Fortunately, financial incentives can significantly shorten the payback period for a hybrid vehicle.  Expansion of such incentives will speed broader adoption of this technology, thus realizing its full environmental and economic benefits.

The backdrop of the US Capitol was a visual reminder for me that climate legislation is around the corner.  But there's no need to wait for the environmental benefits of hybrid trucks.  Indeed, we don't have time to wait.  Hybrids are a low-carbon transportation solution that's available today, and that's made right here in the USA. For both the environment and the economy, hybrids deliver the goods.

* Capitol Hill image from KJZZ.