SuperTrucks: Clean, Efficient and Long Overdue

The idea that big tractor-trailer trucks could be overlooked might seem ludicrous when you're trying to merge onto a freeway with one bearing down on you at 70 miles per hour. But when it comes to energy efficiency and fuel economy -- that is to say, when it comes to CO2 emissions and climate change -- trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles have indeed been mostly overlooked so far. That's a problem -- and an opportunity.

There's been a lot of attention paid to passenger-vehicle efficiency, and with good reason. In the U.S., passenger vehicles account for roughly 60% of greenhouse-gas emissions in the transportation sector, and more than 115 billion gallons of annual fuel consumption. Whether you're most concerned with energy security or global warming, driving those numbers down makes sense. Globally, the story's much the same. Roughly 80% of all new passenger-vehicle sales worldwide now happen in markets regulated by fuel-efficiency standards. And without exception, those standards -- in North America, Europe, China, Japan and elsewhere -- get tighter every year.

That kind of attention pays off. In the U.S., average passenger-car fuel economy will roughly double by 2025, the last year of the current CAFE standards. Consider this: we're on track to actually reverse the trend of annual increases in CO2 emissions from the global passenger-vehicle fleet that's been in place literally since the invention of the automobile.

Meanwhile, though, heavy-duty vehicles have largely avoided this type of regulation. The average "big rig" in the U.S. today gets about six mpg diesel, pretty much exactly what it did during the Reagan era. Heavy-duty vehicles are responsible for about one-third of CO2 emissions from the on-road transportation sector in the U.S., and unless things change, that proportion will rise to about half over the next 20 years, as passenger cars get more efficient. In other parts of the world, HDVs account for an even larger proportion of all transportation-GHG emissions, and their share is increasing even faster. All that CO2 represents gallons of fuel burned -- and is paid for by raising the cost of the goods carried on all those trucks.

Which brings us to the "what's working" part of the story.

The U.S. Department of Energy has quietly sponsored a collaborative effort involving all the major truck manufacturers in the U.S. to develop and test new, energy-efficient long-haul tractor-trailers. As part of this "SuperTruck" program, Cummins/Peterbilt last year unveiled a prototype tractor-trailer that got 10.7 miles per gallon, and recently Daimler debuted a rival prototype, using a different design and technology, that gets just more than 12 mpg -- that is, double the fuel economy of the average long-haul tractor-trailer today.

No, they're not quite ready for mass production, but these are not mere drawing-board vehicles either. Our own research is showing that these technologies could enable tractor-trailers to get more than 10 mpg within the next 5-15 years and offer payback periods of less than 18 months -- well within current industry expectations.

The SuperTruck program is an example of collaboration paired with competition, a public-sector/private-sector effort that wouldn't be effective if it didn't involve that cross-sector cooperation, and wouldn't even exist without the DoE's initiative. By any measure, it's been a success in terms of leveraging the best engineering knowledge to develop the technologies for a very fuel-efficient truck.

And by itself it isn't enough. The trucking industry is a conservative one, the manufacturers are risk averse, and right now the cost of all that unnecessary fuel consumption is passed on to the consumer in the form of fuel surcharges or simple higher prices for goods. Something else is needed to put SuperTrucks on the road.

Which explains why the EPA and NHTSA are about to propose fuel-efficiency standards for heavy-duty vehicles that will require a steady improvement in average fuel economy for new trucks starting around 2020. To be precise, these will constitute Phase 2 of a regulation first adopted in 2011, which set standards for new HDVs, starting in 2014.

While it's impossible to say exactly what standards the agencies will propose, there's every reason to hope that they'll push the envelope very close to what the SuperTruck prototypes have demonstrated are the currently feasible limits of technology and design.

The standards are the indispensable complement to the collaborative R&D effort that the SuperTruck program represents. Only three other governments (Canada, Japan and China) have set any type of efficiency standards for trucks, and none have ventured into the same type of public/private cooperation on technology innovation. The U.S. could lead the way by pushing the advanced SuperTruck technologies into the market with a policy nudge. Big economies around the world have a huge opportunity to double the fuel efficiency of one of the largest sources of carbon emissions. The 45th anniversary of Earth Day last week should remind us that we don't have time to waste.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series on the environment. The series is putting a spotlight on initiatives and solutions that are actually making a difference -- whether in the battle against climate change, or tackling pollution or other environmental challenges. To see all the posts in the series, read here.