California Invests In Zero Emissions Trucks

Because so many of the products America consumes are manufactured in Asia, seaports in southern California are some of the busiest in the world. When cargo containers get off loaded from ships, they need to be moved around the ports by short haul trucks often known as donkeys. Their more formal name is drayage trucks. Then those containers need to get hauled short distances to distribution centers, where they are begin their journey to their final destination.

Mack zero emissions truck
Mack diesel electric plug-in hybrid truck. Photo credit: Jerry Hirsch/

These trucks are not fancy. Many of then have been on the job for decades. As a result, they tend to create more pollution than their more modern brothers we see out on the superslab. A report in quotes the California Air Resources Board as saying freight transport accounts for about half of toxic diesel particulate matter and 6% of all greenhouse gas emissions in California.

CARB and the South Coast Air Quality Management District announced this week they are funding the purchase of 43 zero emission battery electric and low emission plug-in hybrid drayage trucks to serve major California port areas. The program is expected to cost $23.6 million. A quick look at my Radio Shack calculator puts the cost per vehicle at a little more than $500,000 each.

The project “will accelerate the commercialization of advanced zero-emission truck technologies that are vital to improving air quality in communities near our busy freight corridors,” said Joe Buscaino, a Los Angeles city councilman and South Coast Air Quality Management District board member. “Cleaner truck fleets on our roadways are important for air quality and climate goals, and essential to protecting public health,” he said. Funds for the project are provided by California’s cap-and-trade carbon emissions reduction program and various air quality agencies.

The pollution fighting pilot project is “critical for our major ports in California if we are going to meet are air quality and greenhouse gas standards,” Sandra Berg, a member of the California Air Resources Board. “This project will help put the very cleanest short-haul trucks to work where they are needed most, moving cargo from the state’s biggest ports to distribution centers and rail yards,” said Mary D. Nichols, chair of the Air Resources Board.

Several truck manufacturers will build vehicles for the project, including Mack, Peterbilt, Kenworth, and BYD . “Other fleets will take notice and recognize that battery-powered drayage trucks are reliable and available for wider deployment today,” Stella Li, president of BYD Motors. Her company will deliver its first battery electric drayage truck this fall.

Volvo, which owns Mack truck, is experimenting with diesel electric plug-in hybrid tractors. One can travel in electric mode with a full load for up to 10 miles, said Dawn Fenton, spokeswoman for the Swedish truck company. Electronics on the truck can switch it from diesel to electric power when it is operating in a port or traveling through a community with poor air quality on its way to a distribution center or rail yard.

The technology might provide a blueprint for reducing emissions in other large trucks. “We are hoping we can transfer what we learn to long haul trucks,” Sandra Berg of CARB says. “We know the jury is still out on whether they can perform at such low emission with their heavy duty drive cycles, but know we start to get some real time data on whether that can happen.”

Let’s hope something good comes out of this. Addressing the pollution from America’s fleet of heavy duty diesel powered trucks is arguably more important than increasing the fuel economy of passenger cars by a few percentage points. One wonders why Wrightspeed and its gas turbine hybrid heavy duty trucks are not involved in this program. Its technology would seem to be a perfect fit for such short distance, stop/start duty.

Two years ago, Siemens announced it would build an electrified highway from these same ports to distribution centers inland for be used by electric trucks. A search of Google turns up no news on that initiative other than the happy talk that accompanied the announcement. The need is great but progress is slow. At a half million dollars per vehicle, it is little wonder port operators have not been anxious to replace their aging drayage trucks with more modern equipment without significant government assistance.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.