Trucks follow cars on road to better fuel efficiency

The first fuel-economy standards for medium and heavy-duty trucks aim to improve efficiency by about 20 percent by 2018, potentially saving about $50 billion on fuel costs largely by using existing technologies.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

The Obama administration today announced higher efficiency standards that will bring fuel-saving techniques to more medium and heavy-duty trucks.

The White House this morning introduced the set of rules saying they will save $50 billion in fuel costs from 2014 to 2018. The efficiency measures will reduce oil imports during that period by 530 million barrels and cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 270 million tons, according to the White House.

An experimental truck from UPS uses light-weight composite materials to improve fuel efficiency by about 40 percent.
An experimental truck from UPS uses light-weight composite materials to improve fuel efficiency by about 40 percent. Truck and engine makers are expected to meet the new standards making incremental improvements using existing technologies. UPS

There will be two sets of standards, with one requiring engine manufacturers to increase efficiency and another geared at the fuel economy of trucks in different categories, such as buses, garbage trucks, and delivery trucks. Standards will start to take into effect in 2014 model year vehicles.

The truck standards follow an announcement earlier this month of higher fuel efficiency ratings for cars and light trucks that will push the average fuel efficiency, as measured by EPA tests, over50 miles per gallon.

Similar to the auto standards, truck and engine makers expect to meet the new set of regulations by making incremental improvements largely with existing technologies. Trucks will get more efficient engines and save fuel with better aerodynamics, lighter weight materials, and turning off engines when idle.

"It's improvements in the engine and then the adoption of lot of these efficiency techniques, like better aerodynamics and low-resistance tires, that are already out there," said Joe Suchecki, a representative for the Engine Manufacturers Association. "We feel like we can meet the standards with solutions that have already been developed."

By 2018, the mandate will result in a 23 percent reduction in fuel consumption for semi-trucks, while heavy-duty trucks and vans will become about 15 percent more efficient, according to a Bloomberg report. School buses, city buses, and work trucks used by utilities will have 10 percent better fuel efficiency, it said.

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Industry has historically resisted tighter auto and light-truck fuel rules, but the trucking industry has been supportive of higher standards because their corporate customers have always pushed for better efficiency, Suchecki said. "Owners and operators have always demanded the best best fuel efficiency because fuel is a driver in terms of the cost of doing their work," he said.

The rules also include incentives, in the form of credits, for advanced technologies, such as diesel-hybrid and electric power trains as well as fuel cell vehicles, according to a fact sheet from the Department of Transportation.

Operators of fleet vehicles are considered good target customers for advanced efficiency technologies because fuel is a large cost and fleet operators typically consider long-term savings, rather than upfront cost, more than consumers.

Trucks are also big contributors to pollution from transportation. Tractor-trailers, or 18-wheelers, represent about four percent of the vehicles on the road but consume 20 percent of the oil from the transportation sectors and 20 percent of carbon emissions, according to Luke Tonachel at the National Resources Defense Council.

Assuming a cost of $3 a gallon for diesel, the payback for fuel-efficiency investments for trucks is between one and five years according to a calculation done by the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he noted.

The American Truckers Association, which represents trucking freight companies, issued a statement today praising the new rules because they reduce oil imports, greenhouse gas emissions, and fuel costs. In addition, it called for a 65 mile per hour speed limit, policies to reduce congestion, and incentives for technologies that reduce truck idling when they are off the road.