Low-polluting trucks key to reducing oil imports

October 13, 2011|By Jeff Leonard and John Formisano

More than 70 percent of the oil used in the United States is for transportation. If we want to reduce oil imports and address the trade deficit, we need to find ways to make our cars and trucks more efficient and run on cleaner fuels. Such opportunities exist — and must be encouraged.

Advanced truck technologies are a good place to start, if we really care about reducing our oil dependence, saving jobs and improving our economy. Targeted public investment can transform our trucking sector in the near term. We are in an era of budgetary constraints, competing priorities and difficult choices. The return to the nation in terms of energy security, a smaller trade deficit, better public health and a robust trucking sector will be well worth the investment.

The U.S. has been running a huge and unsustainable trade deficit for a very long time. Oil imports are responsible for 20 percent to 50 percent of this problem. Exporting wealth to feed our oil addiction is unsustainable, and it has to stop.

Trucks consume about one in five gallons of fuel used on our roads today, even though they make up a relatively small portion of the overall vehicle fleet. Trucks are massive fuel users on a per-vehicle basis. Furthermore, the share of fuel consumption attributed to trucks is expected to double from 2020 to 2030 as passenger cars become more efficient in response to strong government policies.

Current national policy provides significant incentives for electric cars. The $7,500 tax credit available for the purchase of a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt is a good policy. Incentives like this are valuable in driving demand for advanced vehicles, and they should continue. A temporary and now expired policy provided incentives for the purchase of hybrid cars.

In contrast, there are currently no federal incentives available for truck owners and fleets who want to buy hybrid or electric trucks. This makes no sense. A single hybrid or electric truck can reduce oil use by three to 10 times as much as an electric or hybrid car. There is enormous untapped potential from advanced truck technologies.

Hybrid and electric trucks are a real, near-term solution. Dozens of these vehicles are already on the road in Maryland today. More than 30 were on hand this week at a national conference in Baltimore. With the right support structures in place, these trucks are ready to roll today.

Unlike the advanced passenger vehicle market, which is dominated by foreign companies, U.S. industry leads the world in advanced truck technology. We can and should make the investments necessary to maintain this lead. The long-term societal benefits far outweigh the costs. Investing in this sector will reduce oil imports, support domestic jobs and reduce harmful diesel emissions.

Private companies and fleets are interested in this sector because they know there is an unmet market need. So what is the role of government? Conventional fuels and technologies are firmly entrenched. Overcoming this inertia will require public investments and partnerships to jump-start the industry. In the short term, this means helping fleets buy these trucks in order to build momentum and ramp up production. Over the longer term, it means support for research, development and demonstration to ensure continued progress.

A few states have taken the lead by implementing popular and successful funding programs to help fleets buy advanced trucks. Where local and state programs exist, fleets are purchasing advanced trucks. These are bright spots for this industry, but the lack of federal commitment is holding us back.

Cleaner, more efficient trucks are the future. If we choose to invest in these technologies, it will help us reduce our oil dependence and maintain our industry leadership. If we choose to do nothing, progress will be slow and we will cede leadership (and jobs) to others. Let's hope our leaders in Washington can make the right choice.

Jeff Leonard is managing partner for the Chevy Chase-based Global Environment Fund. John Formisano, a Maryland resident, is chairman of CALSTART, a nonprofit working to build the clean transportation technology industry, and former head of FedEx Express global fleet.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.