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    Why New Semi Trucks Are a Win for the Environment

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Image: Aaron Kohr/Shutterstock

    Quick, what's better for the environment: Replacing your Prius for a Tesla, or trading in a fuel-swilling semi truck for a more efficient one? Well, an electric car seems the obvious choice. But heavy-duty trucks use a lot of gas, and America uses a lot of trucks, which means efficiency gains can have a huge impact.

    Today, President Obama asked the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation to build upon fuel economy standards first laid out by the White House in 2010. Those standards, which required that medium- and heavy-duty trucks have fuel economy increases of between 15 and 20 percent by 2018, will now be extended and increased into the future, based on a new EPA and DOT assessment that will be released by March 2016.

    According to the President, using less fuel means using less imported oil, reducing greenhouse emissions, and saving operators (and thus consumers) money. The White House says that semi trucks haul "about 70 percent of all freight tonnage and over 70 percent of the value of all goods shipped" in the United States, which means savings add up quickly.

    "It's not just a win win. It's a win, win, win," Obama said at an event earlier today, where he was surrounded by two delivery trucks, per the AP. "You got three wins."

    But how much fuel will that save? Medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, which include semi trucks, delivery trucks, garbage trucks, and so on, are the second-largest vehicular consumers of oil behind passenger cars and trucks. In 2010, the year Obama first laid out the request for new truck standards, US semi-trucks consumed 29.9 billion gallons of petroleum fuels.

    Image: White House

    Cutting that by 20 percent means a savings of 5.8 billion gallons of fuel (diesel, mainly), which, based on the EPA's estimate that the average passenger vehicle consumes nearly 500 gallons of fuel a year, is roughly the equivalent of 12 million cars off the road. Yes, it's fuzzy math, and passenger cars usually run on gas, not diesel, but that's still a massive savings. By 2050, the White House projects that current standards will save 10 billion gallons of fuel a year for trucks alone.

    It's an even larger fuel savings when you think that a 20 percent efficiency gain for a thirsty semi truck means far more fuel savings than a 20 percent improvement in a passenger car. Andrew Collins recently highlighted this in a great post about pickup trucks on Jalopnik, arguing that "the 2015 F-150 is better for the environment than the Prius." Why's that? Math, as Collins explains:

    Imagine you're deciding whether to buy a Prius or a Corolla. The Corolla gets 30 MPG, the Prius gets 49 — 63% more. But if you're driving 500 miles, you only reduce gallons of gas burned by about 6.5 driving the Prius.

    Madowitz focuses on two effects in this scenario: First, let's say you're deciding between a used 2013 F-150 that gets 14 MPG to a 2015 one that people are speculating will get 3 MPG better, bringing economy to 17. MPG would increase by 21%, but you burn about 6.3 fewer gallons of gas over 500 miles.

    According to the White House's report on fuel savings, a 20 percent improvement in tractor-trailer gas efficiency would translate to a whopping 20 gallons of fuel over 500 miles, or about as much as two Priuses would burn over that distance. Trading a for a Tesla, on the other hand, would only take one car off the road.

    This image shows potential savings per type of truck covered under medium- and heavy-duty vehicle standards. Image: White House

    The White House puts the savings in grand terms, writing that just the first round of the program "is projected to save 530 million barrels of oil and reduce GHG emissions by approximately 270 million metric tons, saving vehicle owners and operators an estimated $50 billion in fuel costs over the lifetimes of the vehicles covered."

    But such stricter standards must have the trucking industry hemming and hawing over the added cost of gas-saving technology, right? Not at all. In fact, truckers and fleet owners are happy to rake in fuel savings.

    “Finalizing new fuel efficiency standards for medium and heavy duty trucks will be an important milestone that should result in significant benefits to our economy, the trucking industry and the environment,” Douglas Stotlar, president and CEO of Con-way Inc., the nation’s third-largest freight company, said in a release following Obama's announcement. 

    The current focus for improving mileage is similar to that of cars: making powertrains more efficient, improving aerodynamics and tire rolling resistance, and utlizing hybrid and start-stop technologies. According to industry groups, the next phase should also focus on refining the efficiency of trailers themselves, along with ensuring the program has long term, unified goals. Even those goals are a reminder than looking for improvements everywhere can add up to big savings. And by using more efficient trucks, US shippers will be saving a vast amount of fuel—and keeping an equally vast amount of carbon out of the air.