The Fuse

States, Businesses Take the Lead in Fuel Efficiency, Alternative Fuels

by Matt Piotrowski | May 05, 2017

While federal policy on the environment, fuel economy, and transportation is still up in the air with the change in administrations this year, businesses and state governments are taking the lead in moving toward greater efficiency and slicing demand for petroleum.

At the Advanced Clean Transportation (ACT) Expo in Long Beach this past week, various companies and public officials showcased their recent actions in the transportation space.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced at the Expo that since 2013 the state has invested some $600 million in zero-emissions vehicles from cap-and-trade funds, which has resulted in “hundreds of thousands” of clean cars and fleets of buses and trucks. While the state’s alternative light-duty investments have successfully put 115,000 plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on the roads since 2013, it is now particularly focused on hastening the transition to non-petroleum heavy-duty vehicles with the use of electricity or hydrogen as alternatives. Examples include electric school buses and yard trucks, hydrogen-powered city buses, and fleets of electric delivery trucks. Some initiatives to make alternatives more attractive are voucher incentives and upgrading hydrogen refueling centers. “In many cases, it is estimated that the overall operating costs of the zero-emission trucks and buses will be less than fossil-fuel powered trucks over the life of the vehicle because of lower fuel and maintenance costs,” CARB said in a statement. The state is seeking to put 1.5 million zero-emissions vehicles on the roads by 2025.

California is now particularly focused on hastening the transition to non-petroleum heavy-duty vehicles with the use of electricity or hydrogen as alternatives.

Sandra Berg, Vice Chair of CARB, speaking on a panel on the current policy landscape for advanced fuel transportation, said the state plans to fight to keep its authority to set its own stringent fuel economy standards for light-duty cars and trucks even as the Trump administration has reopened the Mid-Term Evaluation (MTE) for the 2012 rule. She argued that U.S. automakers would be hurt by a weakening of the standards, as they would be less competitive in countries where fuel economy is stronger, therefore ceding market share to foreign competitors.

On the same panel, Randy Frye, State Representative, Indiana State House of Representatives, discussed his state’s efforts to displace petroleum in the transportation sector. Under former Governor of Indiana and now Vice President Mike Pence, the state passed legislation expanding deployment of natural gas trucks through tax credits and a large number of CNG fueling stations. With the legislation, enacted in mid-2013, there are now 26 CNG fueling stations in the state, which save costs for the state and increase the use of domestically produced energy. Joe Cannon of Fuel Freedom Foundation pointed out that the U.S. needs to seek true diversity in the transportation sector, noting how the country is energy independent in electricity with a variety of sources—such as natural gas, coal, nuclear, wind, and solar—but is beholden to relying on petroleum for 92 percent of its transport needs.

In the trucking industry, major players appear undaunted by any possible changes in regulations and vow to move forward with Phase 2 greenhouse gas rules regardless of federal policy.

In the trucking industry, major players appear undaunted by any possible changes in regulations and vow to move forward with Phase 2 greenhouse gas rules regardless of federal policy. The second phase would begin for vehicles that are MY2021, and increase in stringency through MY2027. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NHTSA are now determining whether to reverse course on regulations for heavy-duty vehicles. “Even if there’s a change in legislation, it doesn’t really matter—if there’s a technological path to improve fuel economy, manufacturers are going to pursue it, because those with better fuel economy are going to have a better advantage in the economy,” said Steve Gilligan, vice president of product and vocational marketing of the North American business unit at Navistar International Corp., speaking on a panel on the trucking industry.

“The product pipeline has already been filled in advance,” Kary Schaefer, general manager of marketing and strategy for Daimler Trucks North America, said at the event. “Any rollback is not going to change the technological development that is already slated from happening in the future.”

Besides the desire to see fuel economy rules streamlined, speakers on the trucking panel also argued in favor of avoiding a patchwork of state regulations for autonomous technology as the industry begins to adopt driverless technology and the platooning of trucks.

Although some states and private companies are making progress with alternative fuels through policy, innovation, and new technology, others are lagging in the effort, with relatively low oil prices undermining motivation to speed up the transition to non-petroleum fuels.

Officials at other carmakers also noted how they will move forward with innovation and greater fuel economy no matter what happens with the MTE. Representatives from Honda touted the company’s work in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, building off of what its peer Toyota is currently doing in this area with its Mirai car and its heavy-duty truck project in California. UPS, meanwhile, unveiled its first fuel cell electric vehicle at the Expo. GM’s chief economist, Mustafa Mohatarem, highlighted how the Chevy Colorado, a midsize pick-up truck, can now get 30 miles per gallon, and, to great applause, hyped how its new Chevy Bolt has a range of 235 miles on one charge.

Of course, although some states and private companies are making progress with alternative fuels through policy, innovation, and new technology, others are lagging in the effort, with relatively low oil prices undermining motivation to speed up the transition to non-petroleum fuels. Cutting oil dependence will require a sustained effort from many stakeholders, including everyday consumers.

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