Zero-Emissions Trucks Are the Future: Let’s Do This

Last Thursday, California made history by becoming the first state to mandate that truck makers move to zero-emission drivetrains. California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) new Advanced Clean Trucks regulation requires that half of the state’s trucks will need to be zero-emission by 2035, and the remaining half by 2045. A complementary Zero-Emission rule for fleet owners is in the works as well.

Under the rule truck makers must shift a portion of their sales to zero-emission trucks in 2024 and sell an increasing amount every year thereafter. This will mean nothing less than a transformation of the trucking industry in the state of California, and it is unlikely to stop there . Generally, as California goes, so goes the nation.

There are a lot of people in trucking who say that this is too ambitious a timeline and can’t be done. The same arguments were made about the Criteria Pollutants Rule in the early 2000s, and while compliance was difficult and bumpy, a positive result was eventually achieved. The result is something that we can all be proud of. Today it takes 70 trucks to release the same amount of toxic substances into the air that one truck gave off before those rules were implemented.

Instead of fighting the zero-emissions rule, the trucking industry has an historic opportunity to aggressively tackle the problem of emissions from freight and transform its operations into a clean supply chain. This transformation has the power to help the industry attract new talent, garner support from the communities in which it operates, and guard its bottom-line against climate risk.


The Low-Hanging Fruit

The North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) has looked at the issue of moving to zero-emission trucks in detail, and it is clear that some classes and configurations of trucks and truck routes will be easier to electrify than others.

Short-haul and regional routes should be prioritized for electrification, as these are the places where the current state of battery electric vehicle (BEV) technologies works best. Long-haul trucking is more difficult and may be better suited for other zero-emission technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (HFCEV) designs. Fuel cells will be better able to meet the longer range demands posed by long-haul duty cycles and continuous operation applications of team driving and dual or triple utilization of trucks. Hydrogen is also better equipped to match the relatively fast fueling times required by these operations.

Fortunately, CARB does not prescribe specific technologies, but rather simply requires that they be zero-emission. Furthermore, CARB has differentiated goals for different kinds of trucks  with truck tractors expected to achieve the lowest zero-emission sales rates – namely, 40 percent by 2035.


The Charging Conundrum

You can’t run trucks unless you can fuel them, and moving to zero-emission trucks requires a second, massive infrastructure investment in charging stations and hydrogen stations, in addition to the higher-up front cost of new BEV and HFCEV trucks.

As noted in a recent blog by RMI, one of the key challenges to electrifying fleets is a lack of charging infrastructure, and in order to make zero-emission trucking work fleet owners will need to install a large number of charging stations and hydrogen fueling stations.  Infrastructure projects like these can take one to three years, so it will be important to get started soon on building them.

There is a particular need for DC fast charging infrastructure up to 1 MW for larger trucks. Such fast charging is not cheap: it can cost as much as $100,000 per vehicle, and it will also require significant changes to most fleet depots to be able to supply the necessary power for the number of trucks at each site.

As such, while CARB’s mandate gives a strong push to electrify, support for handling the up-front costs of charging stations can go a long way to making zero-emission trucks a reality. The support provided by the State of California through its three large investor-owned utilities for building out “make ready” infrastructure for charging systems is an important complement to the zero-emission rule. Other states may want to follow this example in providing not only mandates for vehicles but support to build the necessary infrastructure.


Cooperation is key

Whether it is the trucks or charging infrastructure, collaboration between industry, utilities, and government will be key to making this new mandate a success. And learnings from this process can provide a blueprint for other states to follow. In August, NACFE will be issuing a report on charging regions and corridors that can help to inform efforts in California and beyond.

Collaboration is also important with many allied efforts underway. There are a number of complementary efforts in process including stricter NOx standards, near zero-emissions solutions, and others that should be integrated to bring not only the longer-term improvements but to take advantage of those changes more readily available now.

We at NACFE and RMI look forward to working with the State of California, manufacturers, fleet owners, utilities, EVSE providers, and other NGOs to turn the state’s ambition into reality on the ground. Let’s do this.