Let's Build a 21st Century Transportation Sector

By Jason Mathers l Bio l Published: June 26, 2013

President Barack Obama addressed the nation today on his environmental priorities, and I have to say, hearing the President of the United States speak so passionately about the issues that I spend my days trying to solve makes me want to wake up and come to work all over again.

In “The President’s Climate Action Plan,” Mr. Obama promises standards that not only will improve our existing transportation sector, but will also help build a better solution for tomorrow. His plan for “Building a 21st Century Transportation Sector” includes a commitment to partnering with industry and stakeholders to develop fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles.

As the President noted, heavy-duty vehicles are currently the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions within the transportation sector. More concerning still, emissions from these trucks are projected to grow faster than any other end-use source of greenhouse pollution.

So, how do we change this?  We need radically more efficient trucks, and we need companies to step up and make commitments to reduce emissions.

Trucks are expected to account for over 80 percent of the projected increase in freight greenhouse gas emissions. Successful efforts to not only slow the growth in freight emissions – but actually reduce emissions from today’s levels, must start with improved trucks first and foremost.

There is a lot than can be done to today’s trucks too to make them more efficient. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Super Truck program challenged our nation’s truck makers to develop test trucks that achieve a 50% improvement in efficiency and we are starting to see the fruits of this labor.  Cummins and Peterbilt, for example, recently revealed a truck for the DOE Supertruck program that "averaged 9.9 miles a gallon in road tests last fall," impressive results seeing as the current average is only around 6 miles per gallon. These gains were made by improved engine technology as well as better trailer aerodynamics and lighter weight materials that reduce the energy needed to keep the truck in motion on the highway.

More efficient tractor trailer trucks are simply good business too.  Consider that these trucks typically travel in excess of 120,000 miles a year and burn fuel at a rate of 6 miles-per-gallon.  So, for each superefficient new truck, companies will save around $40,000 a year in fuel costs. When scaled over the entire economy, these types of efforts can result in tens-of-billions per year in fuel savings. Some of these savings, of course, will be passed along to us as consumers.

Vocational, or work trucks, also have lot of interesting opportunities to improve efficiency.  EDF and FedEx demonstrated that hybrid trucks can do the job in many vocational applications while reducing emissions by 40%. Alternative power units are increasingly available in this space, which helps to reduce jobsite idling. Electric vehicles are even making inroads in lighter-delivery operations.

More robust fuel economy standards that push the established fuel-savings technologies we have today, such as hybrid work trucks and aerodynamic trailers, will be good for business and good for society.

Of course, even the most technologically advanced truck needs to be used smartly. Companies need to lead in this area. Every time a company mandates a fully loaded truck, we will see fewer trucks on the road. Using more carbon efficient modes of transportation is critical too.  Transportation by rail emits six times less carbon per ton mile than trucks.

Ultimately, there will still be a lot of trucks on the road and we need for them to be as efficient as possible. That’s why we’ve developed the EDF 5 Principles for Greener Freight. Simple operational improvements, such as moving more goods per truck and better planning and routing can make a significant difference to a company’s freight emissions.

We have the technology to build radically more efficient trucks today. We also have the know-how to use them much more productively. And now, we have a plan from The Chief. Let’s make it happen.