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Truckin’ California Style

Zero emission trucks will play a major role in California freight transport.

While the Trump administration is busy dousing 50 years of environmental regulation with leaded gasoline, setting it on fire and then dancing on its ashes, California continues to push the envelope on designing and implementing regulations to address climate change and local air pollution. The newest adventure unveiled this year is something called “Advanced Clean Truck Rule”. It’s bold and the first of this kind in a major economy. 

So what’s the issue? Large trucks are largely powered by Diesel engines. When you are schlepping around large payloads, torque matters. And the torque a Diesel engine generates is simply much higher than that of a regular gasoline powered combustion engine. You know what else Diesel is good at? Generating a ton of pollution. Heavy duty trucks generate 47% of NOx, 27% of CO2 and 10% of VOCs for the entire transport sector. Particulate matter from these engines, especially if they are not perfectly tuned, is extremely high. These are the Pigpens of the vehicle fleet.

The second reason we worry about pollution from Diesel trucks is that they are not affecting everyone equally. They disproportionately travel on highways. And highways, as has been extensively documented, are more likely to cut through lower income communities, which also generally have a relatively larger share of people of color living in them. So if you are poor and not white, you and your kids will end up with more Diesel pollution in your lungs, suffer short- and long-term health consequences, and that is not fair (or equitable as we call it in fancy speak). If you would like to read more about issues like this, I am a big fan of Julian Marshall’s work. 

California’s New Rule

So what could one do? We could try to pack tons of freight onto rainbow powered unicorns, or we could try to change the technology that powers trucks. Turns out that technology exists! Elon Musk has a truck (that also seems super fun to drive), but there are a number of other companies that produce plug-in trucks of different sizes. And there is a market for these mean new machines! Amazon put in a huge order for Rivian trucks. And personally, I think the Nikola one is pretty sweet looking. The new California rule will require the phase-in of zero emissions trucks in 2024 with 5% for Class 2b-3 trucks (think Ford F-250 or 350) and 9% of Class 4-8 trucks (big and bigger trucks). By 2035, 40% of long-haul trucks, 75% of Class 4-8 and 55% of Class 2b-3 trucks sold must be zero emissions! That is non-marginal change people! The total number of zero emissions trucks sold by 2035 would be 318,837. 

CARB says this rule is a good idea. They estimate about $9 billion in health benefits, 7000+ new jobs, $1.7 billion in avoided CO2, $6 billion in industry savings and a solid addition to state GDP of roughly $300 million. This seems like a win win! High fives all around! 

Asking Questions

Economists have mostly ignored the environmental aspects of trucking. When I tried to look for papers estimating the externalities from freight trucking, a sector that employs 2 million drivers, I found next to no papers (one nice exception is here). When I looked for papers trying to estimate the private and external costs of electrifying the existing truck fleet, I found no papers. So I have been working on this. 

For the record, I am excited and I do think this rule is a step in the right direction, yet I have some questions, because that is what I get paid for:

1)    If I own a Diesel truck, and am thinking about replacing it, do I do a Dylan and go electric, or do I buy another Diesel truck? Unless someone sweetens the deal, which may include the fixed costs of procuring an electric truck, or provides me with a deal on electricity that makes the variable costs competitive with Diesel, I may be inclined to stick with Diesel, the devil I know. From what I understand manufacturers are forced to meet the numbers put forth by CARB. So you still have to have fleet operators buy the zero emission trucks. 

2)    Truckers have real range anxiety. I grew up in a family trucking business. Stuff needs to get to where it needs to get to, and in time. Uncertainty about whether I can get to my delivery point with the existing charge is going to be higher in this population than in the German academics trying to get coffee in their Model 3. There needs to be range in these batteries. Bigger batteries take up more space and are currently heavy. With overall tonnage requirements, this may crowd out payload. Lighter smaller batteries in this sector matter greatly, since there are overall tonnage limits. 

3)    Truck batteries are much bigger than the stuff in your Tesla 3. Which means to Super Charge these, you will need serious capacity. Charging 50 of Elon’s trucks is going to require a small power plant’s worth of generation – 50 MW or so (I think).

4)    What does the load curve in aggregate look like for this sector? If we can charge these things when renewables are producing a lot of cheap or free power, we could possibly do something about that duck curve! This will take some care in dispatch and charging, but with the right pricing incentives, this might be a cool use for battery electric trucks!

But lately it occurs to me that of these the big question is how do we get folks to adopt zero emission trucks. My answer is to pay them. Gulp. Yes. Let’s push out some serious subsidies to get operators to adopt this technology. Since the environmental justice implications of this are non-trivial – much bigger than those of further cleaning up power generation – this is a good use of future cap and trade revenues. The amount of money required here may not be trivial, but I have always been an advocate of cleaning up California’s transportation sector. As the super awesome Catherine Wolfram points out, there could be huge spillovers to the rest of the world, too. Trucking is a large  share of freight transport in the developing and developed world everywhere. I support this serious and ambitious policy, even though I am in good old grouchy econ fashion, skeptical of the benefits numbers used to “sell” the policy. Still, with the absence of solid econ research, these numbers are hard to come by.

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Suggested citation: Auffhammer, Maximilian. “Truckin’ California Style.” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, August 10, 2020,


Maximilian Auffhammer View All

Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the University of California Berkeley. His fields of expertise are environmental and energy economics, with a specific focus on the impacts and regulation of climate change and air pollution.

13 thoughts on “Truckin’ California Style Leave a comment

  1. There is nothing “bold” about this new rule, merely stupid, nor will it have any measurable effect on climate.

    Batteries have been improving exponentially for nearly 70 years. They are on the cusp of becoming cheaper and more practical for virtually every application, but laws compelling people to buy inferior products and inflated prices do not ever materially penetrate the market and actually SLOW the adoption, since it focuses and wastes resources on technology which is not actually ready. Who gets hurt the most by the additionally imposts costs? The poor, as always.

    Just let it take its own course. In about 6-8 years it will make sense without anyone dictating anything, and will cost half as much.

  2. Why did you not post my analysis of the energy that would be needed for long-haul trucks?

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