Government rules on trucking are getting trickier to navigate, especially amid challenges from the Trump administration and variations across the global market.

But at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo – at the Long Beach, Calif.,  convention center this week – major industry players pledged to stay the course on advancements in fuel economy and alternative technologies despite regulatory uncertainty.

“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.

Gilligan and fellow panelists from Daimler, Kenworth, Mack and Peterbilt presented at a morning session about the future of medium- and heavy-duty trucking. The group covered issues such as the viability of natural gas and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the challenge of acclimating drivers to technological changes, competing with foreign manufacturers and more.

But speakers returned repeatedly to the tangle of regulations governing emissions, innovations and infrastructure.

“Ten years ago, things were pretty static, but now it’s almost like the automobile industry was back in 1900, when people didn’t know if the vehicles were going to run on steam, whale oil or something else,” said Brian Lindgren, research and development director at Kenworth Truck Co. “If you were a young engineer, this would be an exciting time to be in the truck industry.”

The industry must contend with an amalgamation of fuel economy rules that vary not only across international markets but also within federal and state government agencies. Consider a small sampling: the 2010 emissions standards from the Environmental Protection Agency, Phase 2 of the joint EPA-National Highway Traffic Safety Administration greenhouse gas rules and the Euro 6 mandate.

Panelists said that coordinating their vehicle development strategy across the various regulations is a priority. But with Trump angling to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and possibly tinker with other trade pacts, several speakers said that reconciling different emissions and technology requirements across borders could get harder.

“We’re keeping a close eye on NAFTA,” Gilligan said.  

Existing policies domestically could also go under the knife. This spring, Trump announced a review of fuel economy standards for light vehicles. Last month, the EPA and NHTSA asked for a 90-day pause on a lawsuit challenging the Phase 2 regulations for heavy-duty vehicles to determine whether to modify or rescind the rules.

The regulations, which were finalized last year, require heavy-duty trucks to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 9 percent by 2027 and also abide by strict aerodynamic design standards.

Most panelists said they were pushing ahead anyway with fuel-efficient truck designs to satisfy customer demand.

In September, Navistar said its SuperTruck CatallST demonstration vehicle improved freight efficiency by 104 percent compared to its control vehicle, reaching fuel efficiency of 13 miles per gallon – most big rigs achieve less than 10 miles per gallon. Peterbilt’s newest 579 model tops the 2017 version’s fuel efficiency by 8 percent due in part to aerodynamic features such as fairings, skirts and closeouts to lessen drag.

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

Manufacturers also will have to continue to meet the stringent environmental regulations being enacted by the California Air Resources Board.

California plans to stick to the Phase 2 rule regardless of what the Trump administration does, said Tony Brasil, the agency’s heavy-duty vehicle chief.

But some said they would welcome some streamlining of more complicated, conflicting regulations – if the administration communicated its plans.

“We’re trying to separate the noise from the facts – clarity is probably the biggest need we have so we can plan accordingly,” Gilligan said.

That includes chatter over Trump’s grand plans for infrastructure upgrades. The president is considering hiking the federal gas tax for the first time in more than 20 years to pay for better transit arteries – a key, though vague, tenant of his campaign.

Panelists said such an increase could affect freight rates and the specifications carriers seek for their vehicles, especially if petroleum prices eventually rise and certain fuel classes win more exemptions than others. Generally, though, the group cheered potential road and bridge fixes.

“Infrastructure spending, any kind of road bill, is positive so it can fund what the roads desperately need,” said Jonathan Randall, senior vice president of North American sales for Mack Trucks.

And as tests of platooning and driverless technologies progress and other breakthroughs loom, panelists urged the government to develop cohesive rules that apply nationwide, not just in a patchwork of states.

“We can demonstrate that technology on the road, but we need a regulatory framework, testing validation and eventually deployment too,” Schaefer said.

Related: EPA Court Filing May Signal Trump Review of Strict Heavy-Duty Truck Emissions Rules

About The Author

Tiffany Hsu

Tiffany Hsu is a Manhattan-based journalist and former Trucks.com contributing editor. Hsu now works for the New York Times. She can be found on Twitter: @tiffkhsu.

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