California Moves Closer to Banning Heavy Diesel Truck Sales

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Following new rules approved by local regulators on Friday, the State of California has inched closer to banning diesel semi trucks. The California Air Resource Board (CARB) board unanimously voted on a plan that would seek to phase out sales of medium and heavy-duty vehicles that are powered by diesel fuel by 2036.

The board says it’s targeting big rigs and heavier work vehicles because they represent 6 percent of all vehicles in California while making up 25 percent of the vehicle-related emissions. That’s likely because they do so much more driving and typically are loaded up with weighty items that need to be transported across the state — necessitating above-average fuel consumption.

CARB likewise claimed that this was the first such sales ban in the world targeting heavy vehicles. This makes sense since there’s really nothing to supplant them with right now. Battery technology isn’t really up to the challenge of overtaking long-haul trucking right now. However, California won’t be prohibiting their sale for at least another decade.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom was quoted by the Associated Press as saying this would provide the state with an opportunity to show “the world what real climate action looks like.”

“We’re one step closer to achieving healthier neighborhoods and cleaner air for all Californians,” he said in a statement.

From AP:

The state continues to approve ambitious emissions standards as part of its broader goal of achieving carbon neutrality, meaning it would remove as many carbon emissions as it releases, by 2045. Air regulators previously voted to require that all new cars, pickup trucks and SUVs be electric or hydrogen by 2035. And they have banned the sale of new products run by small gas-powered engines, including leaf blowers, lawn mowers and portable generators.
The truck emissions vote follows the California Air Resources Board’s approval Thursday of a rule phasing out decades-old diesel locomotives and a transition to more zero-emission technology to power trains that transport food, lumber, oil and other products.

Truckers are less enthusiastic, however. The American Trucking Associations called the rule “unrealistic,” suggesting that the change would increase the price of electricity and shipping costs. In the end, the organization asserted that the change would mean all products would cost more. It likewise noted that vehicle emissions have been reduced across the board thanks to advances in combustion-engine technologies over the last few decades. 

“As it becomes clear that California’s rhetoric is not being matched by technology, we hope the Board will reverse course and allow trucking companies the freedom to choose the clean technologies that work best for their operations,” the group said in a statement.

But it’s pretty hard to refute that diesel exhaust contains more particulate matter and that it ends up lingering in the air, increasing the potential risk of localized health complications. This is made worse by parts of California’s geography, which often traps smog along the coastline. Still, exchanging one problem with another is less than ideal and there’s not a clear pathway to make electrified big rigs wholly feasible at this juncture.

Despite the automotive sector showing off electric semis, they don't appear ready to supplant diesel trucks. Charging times would presumably delay deliveries and the added heft of batteries required for long-haul jobs has the potential to rip up the pavement in ways we've never seen before. Though it makes some sense that the state would want to dump vehicles with smoke stack exhausts that are pumping black shoot into the air.

Saying that the state voted on the scheme is slightly disingenuous, however. The populace had no direct say in the matter. Twelve CARB members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, with the other four being split into two groups. Two represent “environmental justice communities” (one appointed by the Senate and the other by the Assembly). The other two are non-voting members appointed for legislative oversight (and are appointed the same way).

But they don’t necessarily get to do what they want, even though CARB always seems to find a way. Technically, the bans have to be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The new rules, called Advanced Clean Fleets (an extension of the Advanced Clean Trucks rules launched in 2020), will mandate fleets operating medium-duty vehicles (gross vehicle weight rating 8,501-14,000 pounds and heavy-duty vehicles (anything over 14,000 pounds) shift to zero-emission powertrains. But these fleets have different target dates for when their electrified transition has to be completed.

California already has incentives for all-electric vehicles (including buses) and will undoubtedly try to come up with subsidies to help swap heavy duty transports over to all-electric powertrains. This will be rationalized by claims regarding how ditching diesel will save billions of dollars in healthcare costs and similar assertions about how fleet managers can save money running EVs. But the latter item is counter to what the trucking industry is saying right now.

[Image: Vitpho/Shutterstock]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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2 of 128 comments
  • David S. David S. on May 05, 2023

    EV sales in 2021 were 3% globally. Easy to double sales when the numbers are low. First, the US electric grid is stressed now, adding EVs in the near term will push it over the edge. The grid will not have the capacity to cover the additional use. You must not live in the South? Second, over the lifespan of an EV (cradle to grave), they ARE MORE HARMFUL to the environment than ICE (proven fact). What is the plan for disposing of all the used toxic batteries every 10 years? Additionally, ICE shipping brings goods to this continent, ICE heavy trucking moves it throughout the nation. Have never seen an electric freighter or EV long-distance heavy truck. While Auto companies are investing in EV technology, they also invested in Diesel technology in the late 70's early 80's with little success to show for the investment. Fyi, Tesla (with govt aid) is only #7, Apple is #1 with the greedy oil companies filling in between!

  • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on May 05, 2023

    "First, the US electric grid is stressed now, adding EVs in the near term will push it over the edge."

    Very true, especially with nuclear being retired and not replaced. I think their plan is to build natural gas plants which is why State Media has attacked it of late (though part of that may be supplying LNG to Europe for the ongoing (and pointless) NATO/Soviet proxy war). In DC's view, removing natural gas access to citizens allows them to have more supply for electric grid expansion/export and gives them greater control for their American Dystopia project.

    "Second, over the lifespan of an EV (cradle to grave), they ARE MORE HARMFUL to the environment than ICE (proven fact). What is the plan for disposing of all the used toxic batteries every 10 years?"

    Two things:

    1. They know about the environmental impact but they don't care because they are not environmentalists, this is simply a method of propaganda and control. One word: Hanford.
    2. From what I have read and heard, its a bit like the spent nuclear fuel rod disposal issue which was never properly thought through. The Feds got more value up front in terms of electric generation, processed plutonium for weapons, and energy source diversity than to let an undefined critical disposal process stop them.

    "While Auto companies are investing in EV technology, they also invested in Diesel technology in the late 70's early 80's with little success to show for the investment."

    This is a good point, though I'm not sure how much of it is voluntarily investment and how much is at gunpoint. On Diesel there may have been a Federal nudge but the industry leaped into it (and other tech) in response to the oil embargo(s) and concerns Peak Oil was nigh. I recall reading an interview where an exec said GM was forecasting $3.00/gal by 1985 (so $8-10+ in current Monopoly money). I would also argue Diesel could have worked in the 1980s but it was GM's missteps in the technology which soured things for the whole industry.

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