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California's Landmark Electric Truck Rule Targets 'Diesel Death Zone'

In another first-in-the-nation move to tackle climate change, California will require automakers to sell more electric trucks starting in 2024. The measure, approved unanimously Thursday by the California Air Resources Board, says that by 2045 all new trucks sold in the state should be zero-emissions.

The new rule aims to improve air quality and help the state achieve its aggressive climate goals. At least seven other states and the District of Columbia may follow suit.

Some industry groups opposed the move, but a growing number of automakers have announced plans to make electric vans ortrucks. And in a sign of advancing battery power technology, this emerging market even includes electric big rigs — the heavy-duty trucks that transport freight across the country.

At the Daimler Trucks North America headquarters in Portland, Ore., Jason Gray has helped build the company's first 38 medium and heavy-duty electric trucks. The Freightliner eCascadia is a Class 8 electric trailer, as big as they come, and yet it hardly makes a sound when Gray starts it up to demonstrate.

"What you're going to hear now is noises that all other trucks make, but you never get to hear, because the engine's running," he says. The noises include the brake valves and a whoosh sound from the air compressor.

About a dozen customers are test-driving these trucks across the country, including the logistics company NFI Industries.

"The drivers love 'em," says Bill Bliem, who oversees truck fleets for NFI. "They have nothing but great things to say about them — how quiet they are, how, you know, they don't come home smelling like diesel."

But there are plenty of problems for Bliem to work out before he can start switching his fleets from diesel to electric. He doesn't know yet how much the first electric semis are going to cost once they're on the market, and there aren't many places to charge them now.

Then there's the mileage. Daimler's eCascadia can go about 250 miles before it needs to be recharged.

"We average about 300 to 350 [miles] round trip, and we think that electric is going to get there," Bliem says. "It's not there yet."

So for now, Bliem's company is testing Daimler's trucks on shorter routes in Southern California's Inland Empire, where it ships products between warehouses and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Bliem says he hopes to save money on gas and maintenance down the line, but that's not happening yet.

"Right now, there is no financial advantage," he says. "Being a sustainable company is our biggest push for these. We're hoping the financial benefit comes on the back side."

On some days more than 1,000 diesel trucks an hour pass along shipping routes between distribution warehouses and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in Southern California.
/ Courtesy of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice
Courtesy of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice
On some days more than 1,000 diesel trucks an hour pass along shipping routes between distribution warehouses and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in Southern California.

A growing logistics industry worsens air pollution

Anthony Victoria with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice says the communities that NFI trucks are driving through in Southern California are living in a cloud of air pollution that he calls a "diesel death zone."

A lot of the pollution comes from diesel trucks delivering products to distribution warehouses.

"We're considered, in a lot of ways, America's shopping cart," Victoria says. "In our communities you have high asthma rates, high cancer rates, high diabetes rates, and that could all be attributed to the industry that exists here, the logistics industry."

Victoria's group hascounted more than 1,000 diesel trucks an hour passing through largely Latino neighborhoods.

"That accumulates over time, and it gets people really sick," he says. "And a lot of it, unfortunately, it's environmental racism."

Victoria says California's electric truck mandate could help save lives in these communities. The state estimates it could prevent 900 premature deaths, deliver $9 million in public health benefits and remove 17 million metric tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But industry groups say it's too soon for California to mandate electric trucks since it's unclear who will buy them and whether there will be enough charging stations for long hauls. They also dispute the decision to move forward with the rule while the coronavirus pandemic has forced many manufacturers to shut down.

"There's not a single commercially available heavy-duty electric truck in California today," says Allen Schaeffer with the Diesel Technology Forum, which represents many of the largest truck manufacturers, including Daimler.

"At this point there's not a commercial market for this technology. And there's not really a huge demand from the trucking industry for it, frankly," he says.

Schaeffer says new diesel engines and renewable diesel options can also dramatically reduce emissions, and those technologies are available now without building new infrastructure.

Inside the Portland warehouse where Daimler is building its first electric trucks, workers wire refrigerator-size battery packs onto trailers and chassis. So far these prototypes have all been made by hand. But Michael Scheib, director of Daimler's Electric Mobility Group, says this small-scale production will shift to the company's manufacturing plant at the end of next year.

Daimler currently manufactures 500 to 600 trucks a day, with the company's diesel Cascadia truck claiming a large portion of the heavy-duty truck market. Despite the new mandate from California, Scheib says it's unclear how many electric versions of that truck they'll be producing in their plant.

"The whole industry still has a lot to learn about electrification," he says. "We have our view of, this will happen, you know, the future is electric. The question is when."

NPR's Jennifer Ludden contributed to this story.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting